Families of two former Maryland high school lacrosse players have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against school officials alleging that the teens were suspended for having dangerous weapons after an unconstitutional search of their equipment bags turned up two small knives and a lighter.
The lawsuit alleges that school officials in Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, violated the students’ constitutional rights to due process and their protections against unreasonable search and seizure in 2011 when they boarded the team bus to investigate a tip about alcohol and took action against the teenagers for items the students said they used to maintain their lacrosse equipment.
The Maryland State Board of Education ruled against the school system in 2012 and ordered that the students’ records be cleared of the incident. The state’s decision was a rare reversal of student punishment and appeared to be in opposition to the zero-tolerance policies that have taken hold in schools across the country.
Lawyers with the nonprofit Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties advocacy firm, filed the lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeking monetary damages from the Talbot County school board and four current or former school officials. It comes at a time when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged that out-of-school suspensions be used as a last resort for school-related incidents.
Federal education and justice officials recently issued guidelines intended to help school officials create policies that address the overuse and inequities of harsh discipline.
“I hope this will wake up schools around the country,” said John W. Whitehead, Rutherford’s president.
Both lacrosse players were suspended in April 2011, after Easton High School administrators searched the team bus as players prepared to travel to a game, according to case documents.
No alcohol was found, but during the search, Graham Dennis, then a 17-year-old junior, volunteered that he had a small knife, which he used to fix his lacrosse sticks, inside his gear bag.
School officials took the knife as well as a Leatherman tool they found and called police. The teenager was led away in handcuffs and suspended for 10 days.
A teammate, Casey Edsall, also a 17-year-old junior at the time, was suspended for having a lighter in his gear bag. The teenager said it was used to seal the frayed ends of strings on his lacrosse stick.
In its 2012 ruling, the Maryland board said knives and lighters don’t belong at school but concluded that “this case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion.”
The state board said the coaching staff had tacitly approved the use and possession of the items and that players had openly used them on the bus.
Talbot school officials declined to comment on the complaint.
Andrew W. Nussbaum, an attorney representing the school system in the case, said Talbot planned to file a written response in federal court this week.
Talbot officials have not argued that the students intended to harm others, but in case documents they have said the items were not permitted at school and were potentially dangerous.
“We consider bringing a knife to school one of the most serious offenses that a student can commit,” a school board majority wrote.
Laura Dennis, mother of the teen most harshly punished, said the case took a toll on her son, who is 19, as he applied for college. She said many applications have questions about disciplinary history, and his case was classified as a weapons offense.
He limited his college search, accepting a spot at a school that was not a good fit, she said. He transferred a year later, she said.
“I would like, if nothing else, to gain some awareness,” Laura Dennis said. “And I would like our school district to have some transparency.”
Doug Edsall, father of the other teen, said that the suspended lacrosse players did not want other students to face similar ordeals in the future, a feeling that intensified when they learned of a recent discipline case in Talbot that appeared to involve a minor misstep.
“They both suffered emotionally from it, and I know they feel: ‘You can’t do this to kids,’ ” Doug Edsall said. “It was like, ‘After everything we’ve gone through, it would be a shame to just let it go by and not have a positive effect.’ ”