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.