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On The Front Lines

Victory: Federal Court Gives Green Light to Lawsuit Over Wrongful Suspension of Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter)

BALTIMORE, Md. —Rejecting a motion by a Maryland school district and its officials to dismiss a lawsuit filed by The Rutherford Institute on behalf of two high school lacrosse players suspended for allegedly possessing “deadly weapons,” namely a penknife and a butane lighter used to maintain their lacrosse equipment, a federal court is allowing the lawsuit to move forward. Rutherford Institute attorneys filed the lawsuit alleging that school officials violated the lacrosse players’ federal and state constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when the students were discovered to be in possession of the lighter and penknife. In ruling in favor of the students, U.S. District Court Judge George L. Russell III rebuffed a claim by the Board of Education of Talbot County and school administrators that they did not violate the rights of Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and Maryland’s declaration of rights.

“This is a rare victory of reason and fairness over the kind of hysterical, irrational exercise of authority that teaches children to fear those in power—what I would call a draconian zero tolerance policy run amok,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “We’re certainly not doing ourselves or our young people any favors by allowing them to be indoctrinated into a police state mindset from early on, with no knowledge that they have any rights or any sense that they are the descendants of revolutionaries who stood up to tyrannical regimes.”

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. Institute attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Maryland in December 2013, alleging 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. The complaint also alleged 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. In response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss the unlawful search claims, the court emphasized that school officials may have had no basis for suspecting that either Dennis or Edsall possessed contraband. However, the court did grant the motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ due process claims.

Affiliate attorney John W. Garza of Maryland is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.

Case History

12-11-2013: Rutherford Institute Sues Maryland School Over Wrongful Suspension of Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter)