The concept of “zero tolerance,” in which schools set mandatory penalties for certain infractions and recognize no mitigating circumstances, took a hit when the Maryland Board of Education reversed the suspensions of two students and ordered their records cleaned.

The decision came in the case of two Easton High School lacrosse players who were determined by the school to be in possession of “deadly weapons” for having a penknife and a lighter. Both items were part of their kit used to maintain their athletic equipment.

“This is a huge victory for students everywhere,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which represented the students.

“It’s a victory of reason and fairness over the kind of hysterical, irrational exercise of authority that teaches children to fear those in power.”

The case developed for Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall in 2011 when officials had 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.

The board ordered the students’ records to be cleaned of any reference to the incident.

“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, and 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 reported.

“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.”

“It is undisputed that the sole reason the items were in the boys’ lacrosse bags was for their use as tools for maintaining lacrosse equipment,” Rutherford said.

Whitehead said the case was an example of “a draconian zero tolerance policy run amok.”

Graham Dennis, now 18, told the Baltimore Sun it was “like a big weight is lifted off my shoulders.”

Both students plan to attend Shenandoah University in the fall and be teammates on the lacrosse team.

The report said the state also blasted Talbot school officials for failing to provide full information on the case, such as a letter from an assistant lacrosse coach, Joe Gamble, who reported that he wasn’t aware it was against school policy for players to have such items in their bags.

“I’m not making excuses but want you to know that this issue has never been raised in the past,” he wrote.

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