That question — to which he says he gave little thought — set off a year-long odyssey in school discipline that ended this month with a rare outcome: The state stepped in and reversed a local school board’s decision on student punishment.
In a unanimous ruling, the Maryland State Board of Education expunged the disciplinary records of two lacrosse players suspended from school after the search in April 2011.
The state board also raised questions about a decision to call the police on Dennis, who was led away in handcuffs for having two small knives. His teammate Casey Edsall, also a 17-year-old junior, was suspended for having a lighter, used to seal the frayed ends of strings. School officials deemed it an explosive device, his family said.
“This case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion,” the state board said in its ruling — stressing that knives and lighters do not belong on campus but that Talbot County school officials went beyond their own rules in punishing the students.
It was a blow to the get-tough culture of zero tolerance that has taken hold in U.S. schools in the past 20 years. And for Maryland, it is another moment in the discipline spotlight. In February, the state board drew wide notice for proposals to reduce suspensions and require districts to remedy racial disparities. A vote is expected within the next few months.
“What we’re seeing is that Maryland is stepping up in a leadership role and putting common sense back into discipline,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the decision culminated an often-frustrating quest for the two families involved. Along the way, they received crucial support from the lacrosse team’s assistant coach, who is also commander of the homicide unit of the Maryland State Police.
But the case came as both players were on the brink of college applications, which ask about disciplinary history. One teenager did not apply to certain universities, thinking the offense would take him out of the running. The other wrote detailed explanations and hoped for the best.
“It kind of destroys your reputation,” Dennis said. “People think there is more to the story than what you’re saying.”
Talbot school officials declined to comment last week on the state’s ruling. “We’ll follow the direction of the decision,” said an assistant to Superintendent Karen B. Salmon.
In written arguments, the school officials had agreed that the knives were meant for repairing lacrosse equipment but said their presence posed a danger to students and staff members. They said that no other Maryland school system allowed lacrosse players to possess knives or lighters and that Dennis’s volunteering of the knife suggested an awareness that it was contraband.