The search was a surprise. The high school lacrosse team in Easton, Md., had boarded its bus when the principal and other administrators arrived, announcing that gear bags would be checked. A tip had come in about athletes carrying alcohol.
Near the front of the bus, Graham Dennis, then a 17-year-old junior, asked whether he should remove the pocketknife he always used to cut and tighten strings on his lacrosse stick. It was tucked inside his oversized duffel bag, along with cleats, pads, socks, duct tape and medical supplies.
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.
“We consider bringing a knife to school one of the most serious offenses that a student can commit,” the officials said.
The case reflects continuing tension about tough rules intended to keep students safe. Critics say they often go too far and don’t make schools safer. Supporters say that strong lines need to be drawn and that too much discretion can lead to preferential treatment.
The school system in Talbot County, with 4,500 students and a long stretch of Maryland shoreline, does not have policies that call for zero tolerance. Its rules give leeway to first offenders, allow for discretion by educators and see suspension as a last resort.
Both teenagers say the principal at first told them not to worry, that the issue would be addressed at school the next day. Bring home a win, Dennis recalled Principal David Stofa saying after the search.
Then, according to the families, a school system administrator intervened.
Dennis and Edsall were asked to step off the bus. Parents were summoned. Dennis was suspended 10 days, with a recommendation for expulsion, and Edsall was suspended one day. A police officer drove Dennis to the station, where he was fingerprinted and booked for possession of a deadly weapon.
Laura Dennis arrived at Easton High on April 13, 2011, confused about why her son was in trouble. He always carried tools to fix his stick. It did not make sense, she thought.
“I’m sorry,” she recalled a school administrator telling her, as the administrator explained that Graham had to be suspended. There was no choice.
“I’m sorry,” she recalled a police officer telling her, as the officer explained that he had been asked by an administrator to make the arrest.
Laura Dennis spent the first of many nights reading everything she could find on the Internet about school discipline and the code of conduct in Talbot County. A few days later, she pressed the issue at her son’s hearing: Where was zero tolerance written into the code of conduct? Why couldn’t she find it?
The administrator left the room, she said, and returned to say that it was not a policy — only a practice — so it did not have to be written down.
Her son missed two weeks of school, three lacrosse games and a tournament. He grappled with uncertainty about whether he would be expelled or sent to an alternative learning center. He faced criminal charges, which his family said took a month, a lawyer and some strategizing to be dismissed.
“It affected his outlook on absolutely everything,” Laura Dennis said. He told his parents that he would drop out if he were moved from Easton High School.
“I questioned who I was,” Graham Dennis recalled. He felt labeled as a criminal, he said — and ripped away from his team and school. “That was my lowest point.”
Joe Gamble, the assistant lacrosse coach, had stepped up quickly to make the players’ case. Gamble, the state police homicide commander, was in the bus the day of the search, and his statement was quoted in the state school board’s 12-page opinion.
“I know the purpose of those items were to fix lacrosse sticks, not to cause harm to anyone,” Gamble wrote. “I know what the policy says, as since this incident I have read it. Had I had instruction on this previously, I would have made known to the kids and made sure they did not possess these tools. As a coach, the thought never crossed my mind. . . . I’m not making excuses but want you to know that this issue has never been raised in the past nor could anyone argue that it was something that any of us should have foreseen.”
In written arguments, Talbot school officials said the knives and lighter led to “a serious disruption to the educational process for other students,” creating a basis for suspension of the first offenders. They also made a case that the students should have known such items were not permitted on campus.
The students’ families argued that the teens did not know and often used the items to work on their sticks in front of their coaches, so there had been tacit approval. They argued that the search was illegal and that officials had not followed suspension policies.
Salmon, the superintendent, opted not to expel Graham Dennis but denied an appeal of the suspensions by both families.
The Talbot school board upheld her decision on a 5 to 2 vote.
In August, the families took the case to the Maryland State Board of Education with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties legal advocacy organization that began representing the families in May.
Around Christmas, the families said, the county offered a settlement: The student records would be expunged if the families signed confidentiality agreements and waived their rights to civil suits.
The idea was too late to help with college applications — already turned in — and it seemed “a no-win for us,” said Doug Edsall, Casey’s father. “We were trying to clear our kids’ names, so why would we agree not to talk about it?”
They held out hope for action by the State Board of Education but were told reversals of this kind were virtually unheard of.
As word spread about the state board’s April 10 decision, teachers called with congratulations. Cards arrived by mail. Suddenly, every trip to the Wal-Mart or the pizza place took longer because people wanted to talk.
“This is very rare,” said lawyer John Whitehead, president of Rutherford, who has long experience with school discipline cases.
In its ruling, the state board said the Talbot school system had not shown the disruption of the educational process it claimed. “Discipline for such offenses is appropriate,” the board wrote, “but the discipline meted out here was not.” It suggested that Talbot get a tool kit for players and make clear that knives or lighters could lead to suspension.
Soon after the decision, Casey Edsall and Graham Dennis took to the lacrosse field with local news cameras filming. Both will move on in the fall to Shenandoah University, where they will play lacrosse. “I’m just glad the truth came out,” Dennis said.
Said Edsall: “We don’t want the next kid to be affected by zero tolerance.”