A federal judge has cleared the path for two victims of a school’s “zero tolerance” program to sue officials over alleged violations of their constitutional rights.
The ruling comes from U.S. District Court Judge George L. Russell III, who turned back a request from the Board of Education in Talbot County, Maryland, to dismiss the case.
“This is a rare victory of reason and fairness over the kind of hysterical, irrational exercise of authority that teaches children to fear those in power – what I would call a draconian zero-tolerance policy run amok,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which is working on behalf of students Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall.
The arguments are based on the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and Maryland’s declaration of rights.
The students both were suspended for having “deadly weapons” with them – a tiny penknife and a butane lighter – even though the objects were used as tools to maintain their lacrosse equipment, the institute explained.
“We’re certainly not doing ourselves or our young people any favors by allowing them to be indoctrinated into a police-state mindset from early on, with no knowledge that they have any rights or any sense that they are the descendants of revolutionaries who stood up to tyrannical regimes,” said Whitehead.
WND reported earlier on the suspensions, which the state Board of Education reversed. The board also ordered their records cleared.
The Easton High School lacrosse players were punished in 2011 when officials received a tip that someone on their lacrosse team possessed alcohol. A search of students’ belongings was made before a game.
The students told officials they would find a penknife and lighter in their lacrosse bags, and “although it was understood that the penknife and lighter were tools used by the boys to maintain their lacrosse equipment, the police were called and one player was actually handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged with possession of a deadly weapon,” the Rutherford Institute reported.
The legal opinion from the state board, however, charged that officials in the Talbot County school system failed to apply “appropriate discretion” in the case.
The board noted that the use of the tools has been tacitly approved by coaches and that it actually was the school officials themselves who caused “disruption” in the educational process.
“This case is about context and the appropriate exercise of discretion, in full consideration of all the facts involved in the case, including whether to suspend and whether to call the police,” the board determined.
The mother of one of the boys, Laura Dennis, said school officials got an anonymous tip about the team. The search was conducted April 13, 2011, when team members were boarding a bus for an away game.
“Officials … told the players to identify their bags, and removed the players from the bus while they searched the bags. During the search, officials discovered a lighter in Casey Edsall’s bag and a number of small tools, including scissors, a penknife, a screwdriver and pliers, in Graham Dennis’s bag,” the institute said.
“School officials reacted by calling law-enforcement officers to the scene. Dennis – whose bag contained the scissors, penknife, screwdriver and pliers – was handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged as a juvenile in possession of a deadly weapon. School officials ultimately suspended both boys from school: Edsall for one day and Dennis for 10 days.”
Rutherford attorneys argued that the school’s policies didn’t prohibit the items and neither actually was a “dangerous weapon.”
The civil-rights lawsuit now alleges school officials did not have reasonable suspicion that the boys’ belongings contained contraband, so the search violated their Fourth Amendment rights.
The suit also claims the suspensions deprived Dennis and Edsall of their right to a public education without due process of law, because Easton High School’s student handbook did not define the tools as prohibited “dangerous weapons.”