Lyndsay Benefiel, 16, a junior at Severna Park High School,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Lyndsay Benefiel's mother gave her pepper spray for protection during her long walk to Severna Park High School. But after she was turned in last week by a former friend for having it on school property, the 16-year-old was suspended, is being referred to juvenile authorities and could be charged with possession of a weapon on school property.
Her suspension and a case involving two Talbot County lacrosse players last month have focused attention on the zero-tolerance policies enforced by some school systems in Maryland. Such disciplinary policies are being criticized by experts and parents, who say they punish students too harshly for small infractions.
In some cases, students have been kept out of Maryland schools for long periods, without access to an education, and have been charged criminally.
Jane Sundius, director of education and youth development programs at Open Society Institute — Baltimore, said children should be held responsible for their actions, but "suspension is not an effective mechanism because it disconnects students from the school."
School officials say they must keep schools safe and take into consideration the welfare of the entire school community, not just of the individual.
"The school system has … an obligation to create a safe and orderly environment," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County schools, who declined to comment on the details of the Benefiel case, citing privacy concerns.
But some school systems have been questioning the zero-tolerance policies, instituted in response to incidents such as the deadly shootings at Columbine High in Colorado in 1999. The number of suspensions has fallen in the past few years in several school districts in the state, including in Anne Arundel and Baltimore City.
Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge in Georgia, said that when schools refer students to police for minor incidents, they clog the courts and reduce the time that prosecutors and judges have to deal with more serious juvenile cases such as fights, car thefts and burglaries.
"Now that studies have been conducted on zero tolerance and its effect on students, we know that it is quite harmful," he said. "It goes against the objective of schools, and that is to graduate students."
The judge, who is trying to lead a movement to change the way that schools handle suspensions, says schools and communities should work together to reduce suspensions and help children get back on track.
Elizabeth Benefiel said administrators should be able to use more discretion in dealing with disciplinary issues and should not punish students by keeping them from academic work.
"I am beside myself that my daughter has done nothing, and they are going to hurt her future," she said.
Benefiel said she was unaware that pepper spray would be considered a weapon on school property. She said Lyndsay walked to school at 6:30 a.m., sometimes in the dark, and that she worried for her safety on the busy roads.
"If I sent her to school without the pepper spray, and she got molested or raped or something, I would never forgive myself," she said.
Benefiel said her daughter had a disagreement with a former friend, who posted 125 messages on her Facebook page one weekend, including one that said she would have someone jump Lyndsay as she walked home.
Benefiel said she called police, who told her there was nothing they could do. That Monday, Benefiel told her daughter she would pick her up from school. But during the day, the former friend told school officials about the pepper spray, and Lyndsay was suspended for six days.
Lyndsay was told she could not contact teachers and was unable to keep up with classwork during her suspension. Anne Arundel County administrators allowed her to return to school two days early.
Two Talbot County students also were suspended recently, one for having a penknife and the other a lighter, after the items were discovered in a search of their lacrosse bags. The students and their parents said the items were used as tools to fix lacrosse sticks and that the boys had never been told they shouldn't have them at games on school property.
One of the boys was referred to juvenile services and charged with possession of a deadly weapon.
Their parents are appealing the decisions.
Other Talbot County parents say their children received punishments that were far too harsh and kept them from school. In the most serious case, 15-year-old Richard Whitby hanged himself in his bedroom Sept. 25, two days after he was handed a three-day suspension when his cell phone beeped in class because the battery was going dead.
Tammy and Alvin Whitby say their son had misbehaved in elementary school because he was dyslexic and had difficulty learning to read. He was tested and found to have disabilities, they said.