BALTIMORE, Md. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of two former high school lacrosse players who were suspended for possessing “deadly weapons,” namely a penknife and a butane lighter, which were found in their lacrosse bags. Although it was understood that the tools were used by the boys to maintain their lacrosse equipment, the police were called and one player was actually handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged with possession of a deadly weapon. In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for Maryland, Institute attorneys allege that the Board of Education of Talbot County and several school officials violated Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall’s constitutional right to due process by suspending them from Easton High School on the basis that the tools constituted “dangerous weapons,” as well as their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“By majoring in minors, as it were, treating all students as suspects and harshly punishing kids for innocent mistakes, the schools are setting themselves and their students up for failure—not only by focusing on the wrong individuals and allowing true threats to go undetected but also by treating young people as if they have no rights, thereby laying the groundwork for future generations that are altogether ignorant of their rights as citizens and unprepared to defend them,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, which examines the impact of school zero tolerance policies in shaping young people’s ideas about personal freedom. “Thus far, the courts have done little to improve conditions for young people who are the unfortunate casualties in the schools’ so-called quest for ‘student safety.’ It is our hope that this case will be the tipping point to reverse that trend.”
Based on a so-called “tip” that there may have been alcohol on the Easton High School lacrosse team’s bus, school officials boarded the bus on April 13, 2011 and searched the players’ bags. Graham Dennis told one official that he had a pocketknife, which had a blade measuring 2.5 inches, in his bag and complied with a request to retrieve the pocketknife. Dennis’s bag also contained other tools he used to repair and maintain his lacrosse equipment. During the search, officials discovered a lighter in Casey Edsall’s bag. Although the items were used by the boys to maintain their lacrosse equipment, the police were called. Dennis was arrested and charged as a juvenile in possession of a deadly weapon. The School Board upheld suspensions imposed by school officials: Edsall for one day and Dennis for ten days.
In response to an appeal by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, in April 2012, the Maryland State Board of Education reversed the suspensions, ruling that the suspensions were improperly harsh discipline for first offenses and that the students were not adequately notified that possession of the tools was a violation of the law or school policy. In the lawsuit filed in federal court, Rutherford Institute attorneys allege that the suspensions deprived Dennis and Edsall of their right to a public education without due process of law because Easton High School’s student handbook did not define the tools as “dangerous weapons” the possession of which is prohibited. The complaint also alleges that school officials did not have reasonable suspicion that the boys’ belongings contained contraband and so the search conducted by officials violated the boys’ Fourth Amendment rights. Affiliate attorney John W. Garza is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its lawsuit on behalf of Dennis and Edsall.