Teen's School Shooting Messages Mean-Spirited, but Didn't Warrant Expulsion, Court Rules

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with a teenager who was expelled in 2018 after sending messages accusing another student of being a school shooter.

State justices ruled that district administrators overreached their boundaries when they expelled a student, known only by J.S. in court records, for inappropriate messages sent on Snapchat. The justices explained that the primary focus of such decisions should be the speaker's intent. The expelled student maintained that they were jokes.

"Of course we don't want people making false threats, but that isn't want happened," said Lorrie McKinley, the lawyer representing J.S. "They tried to make this about something that it wasn't."

In April 2018, J.S. had allegedly sent text messages to a friend making fun of another student. Local newspaper The Patriot-News reported that one message included a photo of the student with the caption "I'm shooting up the school this week. I can't take it anymore I'm DONE!"

Another message included a video of the student playing guitar. The caption to this message was, "Many will perish in this storm."

The recipient of the messages proceeded to screenshot and post them to around 20 to 40 friends on Snapchat. After a recipient of the Snapchat message told his parent about the content, the issue was taken to the principal.

The court's majority opinion determined that the messages were not harmful and not sent on school property.

"While mean-spirited, sophomoric, inartful, misguided, and crude," wrote Justice Debra Todd, "in our view, J.S.'s memes were plainly not intended to threaten (either student) or any other person."

J.S. is currently attending college.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Snapchat App
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that school district administrators overreached their boundaries when they expelled a student for inappropriate messages that were posted on Snapchat. Above, a finger is posed next to the Snapchat app logo on an iPad on August 3, 2016, in London, England. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The justices said such communications must be analyzed in context.

The messages ridiculed a third student, saying he looked like a school shooter because he had long hair and wore T-shirts bearing the name of death metal band Cannibal Corpse.

Police determined there was no threat to school safety and administrators notified parents and teachers about the incident.

A county judge overturned the expulsion and J.S. also won a Commonwealth Court decision.

McKinley said J.S. never returned to the Lancaster County high school, instead ending up in a private cyber school.

"His mother said it best at the hearing, she said this has blown up his life," McKinley said. "I mean, it's impacted his career choices, it impacted him pretty much in every way."

Messages seeking comment were left with the district and its lawyer.

Pennsylvania Judicial Center
In denouncing the 2018 expulsion of a high school student over inappropriate messages, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that context and a speaker's intent matter. Shown is a general view of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File