Legal Toolkit Pennsylvania Education, Schools, and Government

What to Know About Education, Schools, and Government


Pennsylvania has 501 school districts which are governed by school boards. They have overall authority over the disciplinary process but usually delegate those duties to superintendents or principals. BUT – there are two instances where a school board’s power is limited. 1. They can not use corporal punishment as a means of punishment, nor can they refuse to award a diploma as a means of punishment. Teachers may only use force in self defense or to stop a fight. If a student has completed their studies, they must receive the diploma. 2. Weapons violations must be punished. This means all of them. Even the nail clippers found in a backpack. In general, a schoolteacher, to a limited extent, stands temporarily in a parental capacity ("in loco parentis") to pupils under his or her responsibility. A schoolteacher may need to exercise reasonable powers of control, restraint, and correction so that the teacher may properly do his or her duties and accomplish the purpose of educating the students. The school's authority over a pupil may continue even after classes end and the student leaves the school premises. Misconduct by students on the way home from school or on the way to school may properly be within the scope of the school's authority. Conduct outside of school hours and neither on school functions or school property may subject a pupil to school discipline if it directly affects the school.


Pennsylvania law authorizes any interested party to file a disciplinary complaint against a professional educator or charter school staff member with the Department of Education. Generally complaints must be filed within one year from the date of the occurrence of any alleged misconduct or from the date of its discovery. If the alleged misconduct is of a continuing nature, the date of its occurrence is the last date on which the practice occurred. If the alleged misconduct involves sexual abuse or exploitation of a child or student, the complaint must be filed within five years of reaching the age of 18.


While the U.S. Constitution upholds the right to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, the standard for school searches is less rigid. The search is lawful if the school has a "reasonable suspicion" that a school rule has been violated. This means the search must be justified when made and reasonably related to the circumstances being investigated. For example, a student is believed to have been smoking on campus, but denies it. A reasonable search can be made of the purse or backpack he or she was carrying at the time of the incident. His or her locker and pockets can also be legally searched. Courts will weigh a student's right to privacy against a school's need to obtain evidence of school rule violations and violations of the law. This "reasonable suspicion" standard has been upheld in challenges to locker, desk, and car searches.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that children and their parents, when the child's educational performance is adversely affected by particular disabilities, are afforded special education rights over and above regular education rights. School districts are legally required to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities. Specifically, IDEA ensures a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet the unique needs of disabled children and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. Disability, as defined by IDEA, includes mental retardation, hearing impairment (including deafness), speech or language impairment, visual impairment (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, specific learning disability, and other health impairments. Children, who meet the IDEA standard of disability, will have access to an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) from the school and parents will play a key role in the planning, goals, and regular communication related to that plan. Children who don’t qualify for services under IDEA may qualify for a 504 Section plan instead. Parents with a concern about their child’s IEP, 504 Section Plan, or qualification under IDEA should first address the concern in writing with the school principal and the child's teacher or school intervention specialists as appropriate. An education attorney can advise parents about the rights and responsibilities afforded by IDEA and options to consider if parental concerns are not answered.


Disciplinary issues and disputes with schools, principals, and/or teachers about a child's education can be very emotional. Parents and family members are encouraged to work as cooperatively as possible with schools to resolve disagreements and to understand that schools must have disciplinary policies in place for the benefit and safety of all students. Parents can positively advocate for their child with the school while still requiring calmly but firmly that the child accept responsibility for misbehavior. Public schools must follow particular procedures and levels of hearings and appeals when dealing with disciplinary issues. An education attorney can advise parents about their rights related to education, discipline, and school disputes.


The 11th Amendment basically gives states a certain amount of sovereign immunity which means states can’t be sued by either citizens of other states or citizens of their own states in federal court. In addition, Pennsylvania has passed the Sovereign Immunity Act. This act basically says that in most cases the state is immune from being sued. In addition, you can not file a suit for money damages. This is based on the theory that if you were to recover any judgment it would be paid by the state treasury. There are 9 exceptions to this concept: 1. Vehicle liability – the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party; 2. Medical-professional liability – acts of health care employees of commonwealth agency medical facilities or institutions or by a commonwealth party who is a doctor, dentist, nurse or related health care personnel; 3. Care, custody or control of personal property in the possession or control of Commonwealth parties; however, sovereign immunity is not waived as to the “use of nuclear and other radioactive equipment, devices and materials”; 4. Commonwealth real estate, highways and sidewalks – dangerous conditions of real estate; 5. Dangerous conditions created by potholes and sinkholes on Commonwealth highways; 6. Care, custody or control of animals in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party, including police dogs and horses; 7. Liquor store sales at Pennsylvania liquor stores by employees of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board “if such sale is made to any minor, or to any person visibly intoxicated, or to any insane person, or to any person known as an habitual drunkard, or of known intemperate habit”; 8. National Guard – acts of members of the Pennsylvania military forces; and 9. Toxoids and vaccines – liability may be imposed on the Commonwealth a toxoid or vaccine is not manufactured in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania must take responsibility for it. The Sovereign Immunity Act limits recovery against a Commonwealth party to a maximum of “$250,000 in favor of any plaintiff or $1,000,000 in the aggregate.

 IMPORTANT: The “Notice” Concept -  Within six months after an injury to his person or property, a potential plaintiff must give written notice of the injury to the Commonwealth or government unit. The notice must include the identity of the injured party, his address, the location, date and hour of the accident and the name and address of his treating physician. Failure to file the notice within six months bars a suit for the plaintiff’s injuries. 


Lawsuits against local governments are viewed in light of the concept of governmental immunity. The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act bars suits against local municipalities, and carves out some exceptions. They are similar, but not equivalent, to the exceptions noted in the Sovereign Immunity Act, and include: (1) operation of a motor vehicle; (2) care, custody or control of personal property of others in the possession or control of the local agency; (3) care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency; (4) care, custody or control of trees, traffic controls and street lighting, which create a dangerous condition; (5) a dangerous condition of utility service facilities; (6) a dangerous condition of streets; (7) a dangerous condition of sidewalks; and (8) the care, custody or control of animals. Also like the Sovereign Immunity Act, the Tort Claims Act limits the amount of damages recoverable against a local agency, and restricts types of damages which may be recovered. It limits damages against a local agency to a maximum of $500,000 either by a single plaintiff or in the aggregate.