Varsity athlete Graham Dennis never thought of the pen knife he carried in his bag to repair his lacrosse stick's strings as a dangerous weapon. It was a tool of the sport, he believed, until Easton High School officials found the item in a search of bags on a school bus headed for a game.
Dennis and teammate Casey Edsall, who had a lighter that he also used to repair equipment, were sent to the principal's office and the police were called. Dennis was hauled off in handcuffs to be fingerprinted and charged as a juvenile with possession of a deadly weapon.
The school system's handling of the punishment has enraged the 17-year-old boys' parents and drawn criticism from some area residents who say the case is an example of Talbot County's zero-tolerance policies gone amok. The incident comes just as members of the state board of education are raising concerns about whether some school system policies around Maryland are too harsh and deny students the right to an education.
"I think this is an example of where administrators just lost perspective," said Mark Harrison, whose son plays on the Easton High School team. He said 50 parents showed up at a school board meeting in April to protest the suspensions, but the board refused to allow them to speak because members said they may have to rule on appeals from the two boys.
Dennis, who has never before been suspended or gotten into trouble at Easton High School, received a 10-day suspension and was out of school until last Wednesday. Edsall received a one-day suspension for having the lighter, which is classified by the school system as an explosive device.
Dennis said the incident made him feel "shook, depressed, abandoned by the school. I feel like they didn't care, so they tossed me aside. Without my family and friends, I would feel completely alone."
School officials would not comment on the details of the case, saying they constitute confidential student information.
But Lynne Duncan, Talbot County supervisor of student services, said the school system has to follow Maryland law, which states that students may not have any weapon on school property. "Our policy doesn't allow for it," Duncan said.
Parents say school administrators should be able to make judgment calls rather than giving every student the maximum penalty, as happens under zero-tolerance policies. Administrators are paid to make those judgment calls, said Laura Dennis, Graham's mother.
"Incidents like this are cause for tremendous concern," said Kate Walsh, a member of the state school board who initiated a discussion about suspensions last winter after a Fairfax County, Va., student committed suicide following a long suspension on a relatively minor infraction. "This represents overreactions in school systems that are troubling, not just in Virginia but Maryland."
Across the country, such zero-tolerance policies have been an issue, with other students suspended for accidentally bringing a pen knife to school. Last year, an 11-year-old Arizona boy was nearly expelled for having a pen knife that he had put into his backpack while visiting his father and forgot about, according to the Associated Press.
The Maryland school board surveyed every district to determine which had zero-tolerance policies and is considering whether it should adopt a regulation that would limit the time a suspended student can be kept out of school during appeals.
The Dennises are now trying to get their son's school and criminal record cleared so that the suspension and criminal charges will not follow him throughout his life.
School officials originally told Laura Dennis that she would not be allowed to appeal the 10-day suspension. But Talbot schools Superintendent Karen Salmon told her Monday that she would consider a written appeal to expunge the suspension from her son's record. If his school record is cleared, then Graham Dennis would not have to report the suspension to every college he applies to next year.
The parents decided late Monday to try to get the case taken out of juvenile services and into the adult system. They hope that the state's attorney will decide not to bring the charges or that their son will be found not guilty in court. Laura Dennis said she and her husband want to make sure that their son is not left with a criminal record.
Salmon, who stands behind the school system's decision, said in a letter to the Dennis family that having a weapon on school property is a criminal offense that could be punished with three years in jail. "Given the severity of this violation expulsion is warranted," she wrote to the family in a letter in April. But because of extenuating circumstances, she said, she would allow the student to return to school after 10 days.
Laura Dennis said her son and other players have regularly used the items to repair sticks on the sidelines during games.
"He has been using them to string sticks forever," Dennis said. "It was never considered anything but a tool." No coach or official told them what they were doing would get them in trouble, she said. While they knew that guns and knives were not allowed, they did not consider a pen knife and a lighter to be against school rules. And the school handbook does not define a pen knife as a dangerous weapon.
Several lacrosse coaches said that such items are not unusual in players' bags, but that not everyone has them.
"Honestly, they are typical items for kids that tinker with their sticks all the time. Every team has a kid who is a stick doctor," Bob Shriver, the coach at Boys' Latin School in Baltimore, said of those students who have the most expertise in stringing lacrosse sticks. "I can see that being part of somebody's bag."
Lacrosse players who are on teams from large or more well-off high schools don't always have the tools on the sidelines, coaches said, because each player may have a back-up stick in case the other one breaks during a game.
Shriver said his team has a trainer who carries those items. And Ron Belinko, the athletic director for Baltimore County schools who is in charge of organizing the public school state championships, said that when he was coaching, he usually carried scissors, and a myriad of spare parts, in case repairs were needed during a game.
"I don't really think it is common practice for youngsters to have all these tools. I am not saying that it is not done," he said, but he hasn't observed students making repairs on the sidelines in his county.
"Most of our kids who need to repair a stick during games do so with the help of an athletic trainer," said Brooks Matthews, Gilman School's coach. "We don't have any specific rules on that as a school. That is [just] how it happens for us."
But the parents at Easton High said their small school doesn't have the money to hire a trainer and their coaches do not generally carry such items. They said it is up to the boys to bring their own equipment.
School officials, Laura Dennis said, had gotten a tip that there might be alcohol on buses going to games. On April 13, the team returned to school to take a bus to an away game that evening. The lacrosse bags were taken from their cars and put in a storage compartment underneath the bus.
After the team boarded the bus, the principal, athletic director, an assistant principal and administrators from the central office took the boys off the bus and had them identify their bags, according to Doug Edsall, Casey's father, and Laura Dennis.
They searched Casey Edsall's bag first and found a lighter. Then they pulled Graham Dennis aside and he told them that they would find a pocket knife and a multi-tool device, similar to a Swiss army knife, that has small scissors, a corkscrew, a pen knife, a screwdriver and pliers. In addition, the school administrators found a folding pocket knife with a 2-inch blade, according to Easton police Lt. Gregory Wright.
The parents said the students were asked to go to the principal's office. Laura Dennis said she was called as well as the police. When she got there, she was told her son would be arrested. She said he was in tears and scared as the police officers handcuffed him and put him in the police car.
Edsall's family appealed his suspension for possession of an explosive device. The appeal was denied by Salmon, but the family said they are taking it to the next level, which is the Talbot County school board, hoping that it will reverse Salmon's decision.
Dan Olds, a retired firefighter who is the parent of another player, says such a charge is preposterous because lighters are not considered explosive devices. Olds said the parents have joined forces. "We are very concerned because these kids didn't do anything wrong," he said.