(Easton, Md) The Rutherford Institute has appealed to Maryland’s State Board of Education in the cases of two Easton High School lacrosse players who were suspended for being in possession of a penknife and lighter, items found in their lacrosse bags which are used for maintaining lacrosse equipment. 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. 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.
“This is yet another case of a draconian zero tolerance policy run amok,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Arresting a student for having a tool with which to fix his sports equipment is absurd. This is a clear violation of the students’ constitutional rights.”
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 insist 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 can reasonably be considered a “dangerous weapon,” Institute attorneys argue, 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.
The Institute’s appeals to the Maryland State Board of Education on behalf of Dennis and Edsall point out that Talbot County’s policies, in opposition to its treatment of the two boys, purport to authorize suspension only as a “last resort” for repeated disciplinary infractions or where a student’s presence is a danger to the school community. Institute attorneys also warn that the decision by school officials to search the students’ belongings based solely on an unsubstantiated “anonymous tip” may have violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Affiliate attorney John W. Garza is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Dennis and Edsall.