Judge Rejects Florida Student's Request to Take Part in Graduation

A federal judge turned down a National Merit Scholar's request to graduate with her classmates Tuesday night.

Lindsay Brown, 18, was suspended and barred from graduation in Fort Myers, Fla. after a kitchen knife was found in her car on school grounds.

U.S. District Judge John Steele said he refused to overturn an order by the Lee County School District that banned Brown from the ceremonies because Brown's attorney, Jerry Lovelace, had failed to show that Estero High School officials had violated Brown's rights to a fair hearing.

"I'm a little disappointed, but this is the way it has to be," Brown said. "I won't have any graduation memories, but I'll have to live with it."

Lovelace, who represents the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties group, said there was no time to appeal the decision because it came just two hours before the ceremony was scheduled to begin.

Keith Martin, the school district's attorney, declined comment.

The Rutherford Institute, which claimed Brown's due process rights were violated, asked the judge to issue an injunction allowing her to graduate Tuesday night with the rest of her class.

Attorneys for the Rutherford Institute are also representing a 9-year-old Florida boy who was arrested after an elementary school teacher reported seeing him chasing other students around campus with a plastic toy gun, according to the group's Web site.

Brown was suspended last week after a deputy spotted a kitchen knife with a 5-inch blade in her car as it was parked on campus.

The young woman said the knife fell out of a box while she was moving during the previous weekend.

The school district has a policy of automatically suspending any student who brings a weapon on campus.

"No individual, including the defendants, believe that Ms. Brown brought the flatware to school intending to use it to harm any person," the lawsuit said. "Indeed, none of [the] defendants deny that Ms. Brown did not even know of the presence of the table knife in the car."

Lee County sheriffs deputies arrested Brown on a charge of possession of a weapon on school property. The state attorney's office has not decided if those charges will be pursued.

Representatives of the Charlottesville, Va.-based civil liberties group said Brown was allowed to take her final exams on campus last week, but called it "arbitrary and capricious" that school officials would then ban her from the graduation ceremony.

The Brown lawsuit said the young woman was not given an opportunity to explain why the knife was in her car prior to her being suspended nor was she given an opportunity for a hearing on the matter.

Graduation was to take place Tuesday night at the TECO Arena near Estero, south of Fort Myers. About 320 seniors were scheduled to graduate. Brown's friends last week petitioned other seniors to boycott graduation if she was unable to attend.

Brown plans to attend Florida Gulf Coast University, where President William Merwin has already said that if she doesn't receive her state-sponsored scholarship because of her arrest, the university will raise money for her tuition.

--The Associated Press contributed to this report