Two Easton High School lacrosse players should not have been suspended or arrested for having a penknife and lighter in their lacrosse bags, according to the Maryland state school board, which ordered that the boys' records be wiped clean.
In a legal opinion released Tuesday, the state school board said Talbot County school officials had failed to use "appropriate discretion" in disciplining the two lacrosse players, who said they carried the items to repair their lacrosse sticks.
"I feel like a big weight is lifted off my shoulders," said Graham Dennis, 18, who a year ago was arrested as a juvenile, charged with possession of a deadly weapon, and suspended from school for 10 days.
Dennis and his teammate Casey Edsall, who was suspended for one day, will both be going to Shenandoah University in Virginia next fall and will play lacrosse.
The state school board rarely overturns a ruling by a local board, but state board members have been increasingly outspoken in recent months about what they view as the excessive use of suspensions to discipline students for small infractions. The board is considering proposing rules to require school systems to reduce the percentage of students suspended for nonviolent offenses.
"We are thrilled with the outcome," said Doug Edsall, Casey's father. "It was about the kids and making sure they received due process."
Edsall said the process had been hard on the two boys because they were applying for college and the suspensions remained on their permanent school records, even as they appealed.
During the yearlong appeal process, he said, teachers and parents called to urge them not to give up their fight. "We both said we wanted someone else to say, 'Talbot County, you can't do this to kids,' " he said.
He added that
teachers and parents believe the county's discipline policies are too harsh.
Laura Dennis, Graham's mother, said the state board's decision "was a relief for us. It was hard for him to play lacrosse this spring."
Talbot County schools were on spring break Tuesday and the superintendent was not available for comment. The president of the Talbot school board did not respond to an email request for comment.
Last April, Dennis and Edsall were boarding a bus to go to a game with the team, when the principal and other staff searched all the boys' lacrosse bags because they believed some of the players might have alcohol. Dennis and Edsall told the principal he would find knives and a lighter in their bags.
They pulled the boys aside and called the police. Dennis, who had two small knives in his bag, was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the station to be charged. Both students were suspended, Dennis for 10 days with the possibility of an expulsion, and Edsall for one day for carrying a lighter that was considered "an explosive device."
The Talbot County board said the presence of a knife increased the risk of injury and was "seriously disruptive of the educational process." But the state board said it was not in this case and argued that the suspensions violated the county's discipline code.
"This case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion," the opinion said. The board seemed particularly upset by the arrest, which it said was worse than the 10-day suspension and should trigger the school system to look more closely at when administrators should call the police.
The state board also criticized the local board for failing to give the state school board its whole file on the case. Only after the state board asked for the missing documents did the Talbot board turn over all of them, including a letter from the assistant lacrosse coach on the bus during the search.
Assistant coach Joe Gamble wrote a letter to the Talbot County school board, saying he was not aware that it was against school policy for the lacrosse players to have the items in their bags. "I'm not making excuses but want you to know that this issue has never been raised in the past," said Gamble.
The Dennis family decided to fight the charges against Graham. They were told that if their son agreed to sign documents saying that he had been in possession of a dangerous weapon, the charges would be dropped. But Laura Dennis said she didn't want her son to sign the document because she believed the record might follow him. They hired an attorney who took the case to court, where an assistant state's attorney dropped the charges.