When Maryland’s Easton High School grossly overreacted by suspending two lacrosse players for carrying a pocketknife and butane lighter for repairing their sticks, the boys’ parents were warned that they’d never get the punishments overturned.
The Talbot County school superintendent is a stubborn, petty tyrant who won’t back down, the parents of Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall said they were told.
And don’t expect help from the county or state school boards, they were cautioned. In Maryland, as in the rest of the nation, the boards care more about protecting a superintendent’s authority than correcting a misguided decision.
So we should applaud and thank the parents for pressing ahead to clear their children’s names in the Eastern Shore town. They battled for a year to record a noteworthy triumph for simple common sense over rigid-minded school bureaucrats.
The victory came with the unanimous ruling by the State Board of Education on April 10 expunging the suspensions from the players’ records. It said the county went beyond its own rules in levying the punishments.
The decision suggested that Maryland is taking a leading role in the country in pushing to reform draconian discipline policies.
“What we see with most boards of education is rubber-stamping, at the state level or otherwise, of what schools do. With Maryland, this is a break. This is a signal that something is changing, so they look at it rationally,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, whose lawyers handled the appeal to the state board.
The opinion also offered a welcome example that grass-roots civic activism can sometimes defeat the established powers. As in Fairfax County last year, parents, activists and the media combined to raise awareness about the damage done to students by excessive or arbitrary punishments.
“There’s a been a bit of push-back around the country about discipline. I think the state board wanted to send a message that you need to be careful,” said Norman Bowie, a former member of the Talbot school board who had been in a minority opposing the suspensions at the county level.
Everyone in the case agrees that carrying a knife on a school team bus is a serious matter, even when the blade is just 21 / 2 inches long. In this case, however, there were so many mitigating factors that the punishment was plainly out of line.
First, and crucially, Talbot County does not have a “zero-tolerance” policy that mandates suspensions. Instead, it allows for discretion to consider all the facts and circumstances in a case.
The knife and butane lighter (labeled “an explosive device” by the school) were tools used routinely by lacrosse players to trim and seal strings in the nets of their sticks.
The assistant lacrosse coach, who also is the state police homicide commander, wrote a formal statement saying neither he nor the players were aware that the knife and lighter should be kept off school property.
Neither of the two players had disciplinary problems in the past. Both volunteered that they had the tools on them during a search of the team bus for alcohol, which wasn’t found.
The principal, assistant principal and police officers involved were unhappy with the decision to suspend the players and apologized for it, the parents said. But they and others said Superintendent Karen B. Salmon and Lynne Duncan, the school system’s supervisor of student services, insisted on the suspensions.
Laura Dennis, whose son had the knife, said the key thing in her mind was that nobody was aware beforehand that any rules were being broken.
“I believe in punishment for kids. I believe in consequences. But first you have to let them know what actions they’re going to be accountable for. He had no idea he was going to get in trouble for that pocketknife,” she said.
She and the other parents were concerned primarily that the suspensions would hurt the boys’ college admission prospects. Happily, even before their disciplinary records had been expunged, both were recruited by Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., to play lacrosse.
The power of the bureaucracy was such that the parents got very little public support from within the school system. Doug Edsall, Casey’s father, said he received more than a dozen calls from teachers and coaches who expressed support but were unwilling to write a letter on his son’s behalf because of the risk of retaliation by Salmon.
“There’s a fear factor there that she has over the teachers, not to step out of line,” he said.
Salmon declined to be interviewed for this column. She issued a short statement saying the county “is committed to ensuring that the safety of its students and staff remains its number one priority.”
Perhaps the wrist slap from the state will prompt Salmon, and other superintendents, to make good judgment a priority as well.
For previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.