EASTON, Md. — The Rutherford Institute is calling on Maryland school officials to exhibit some common sense and compassion in their handling of an incident involving two Easton High School lacrosse players who were suspended for being in possession of a penknife and lighter used for maintaining lacrosse equipment. It is undisputed that the sole reason the items were in the boys’ lacrosse bags was for their use as tools for maintaining lacrosse equipment. Nevertheless, the police were called in and one player was actually handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged with possession of a deadly weapon. Institute attorneys are demanding that the Talbot County Board of Education reverse the suspensions and expunge the boys’ 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 “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. That’s when they found the 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 to the discovery by calling law enforcement officers to the scene. Dennis 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 boys’ defense, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute insist that the suspensions violate fundamental principles of due process of law because neither the lighter nor the penknife is 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 letter points out that Talbot County’s policies 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. The suspension of Edsall and Dennis appears to be in direct conflict with those provisions. Finally, The Rutherford Institute raises concerns that school officials’ decision to search students’ belongings based solely on an unsubstantiated “anonymous tip” may have violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.