On The Front Lines
Zero Tolerance Victory: Md. Board of Ed. Reverses Suspension of H.S. Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter)
EASTON, Md. — The Maryland State Board of Education has reversed the suspensions of two Easton High School lacrosse players for possession of “deadly weapons,” namely a penknife and lighter found in their lacrosse bags. Although it was understood that the penknife and lighter were tools 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 reversing the suspensions, the Maryland State Board of Education noted that the students had voluntarily told officials they possessed the items, that use of the tools to maintain lacrosse equipment had been tacitly approved by coaches, and that it was the actions of school officials themselves that had caused any “disruption” to the educational process. Ordering that the students’ academic records be completely expunged of the incident, the State Board explained, “This case is about context and the appropriate exercise of discretion, in full consideration of all the facts involved in the case, including whether to suspend and whether to call the police.”
“This is a huge victory for students everywhere,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It’s a victory of reason and fairness over the kind of hysterical, irrational exercise of authority that teaches children to fear those in power.”
According to Laura Dennis, the mother of one of the suspended boys, school officials reported receiving an anonymous tip that there may have been alcohol on the lacrosse team's bus on April 13, 2011, when the team was headed to an away game. Based on this so-called “tip,” school officials boarded the bus, told the players to identify their bags, and removed the players from the bus while they searched the bags. During the search, officials discovered a lighter in Casey Edsall’s bag and a number of small tools, including scissors, a penknife, a screwdriver and pliers, in Graham Dennis's bag. School officials reacted by calling law enforcement officers to the scene. Dennis—whose bag contained the scissors, penknife, screwdriver and pliers—was handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged as a juvenile in possession of a deadly weapon. School officials ultimately suspended both boys from school: Edsall for one day and Dennis for ten days.
Coming to the students' defense, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute argued that the suspensions violated fundamental principles of due process of law because the lighter and penknife were not clearly prohibited under the school's policies. Moreover, neither item could reasonably be considered a “dangerous weapon,” Institute attorneys insisted, because the only applicable definitions of “dangerous weapons” make no mention of lighters and specifically exclude small penknives such as the one Dennis used to maintain his lacrosse equipment. Despite an outpouring of public support for the players, the Talbot County Board of Education subsequently elected not to reverse the suspensions and expunge the players' academic records. Upon appeal to the Maryland State Board of Education, Institute attorneys pointed out—and the State Board of Education agreed—that Talbot County’s policies authorize suspension only as a “last resort” for repeated disciplinary infractions or where a student’s presence is a danger to the school community. The suspension of Edsall and Dennis was therefore “illegal,” as it was in direct conflict with those provisions. Affiliate attorney John W. Garza acted on behalf of The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Dennis and Edsall.