A junior-high boy who prevented a friend from slitting her wrists by taking away her knife is fighting his automatic suspension from school for possessing a weapon.
Ben Ratner and his mother, Beth Haney, made their appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia last week, saying a lower court erred in dismissing the case.
In October 1999, Ratner, an eighth-grader from Loudoun County, Va., received a note in class from a friend who said she was contemplating suicide and had brought a knife to school in her binder. Ratner was familiar with the girl’s personal troubles and knew she had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems. When he asked for the knife, the girl refused, so Ratner took the binder from her and locked it in his locker. He intended to take the knife home to his mother, a nurse, who could determine an appropriate course of action.
School officials found out about the knife and asked Ratner if he had it. The boy said he did and gave the knife to Fanny Kellogg, a dean at Blue Ridge Middle School, upon Kellogg’s request. Though Kellogg said she understood the boy’s reasons for taking the knife and stated her belief that he was not a threat to anyone, school officials still proceeded to suspend the boy for 10 days. The suspension was quickly amended to be “indefinite,” pending review by the school board, which decided the boy should remain out of school for four months.
Ratner had believed subjecting his friend to school authorities would be too much pressure for the girl, and he was right. The Sunday following the incident, the girl slit her wrists. Her suicide attempt, however, was unsuccessful.
Although officials for the Loudoun County Public Schools also acknowledged that Ben’s actions were “noble” and “admirable” and admitted that he posed no threat to himself or others, they nevertheless upheld the long-term suspension, which lasted from Oct. 8, 1999, until Jan. 25, 2000.
Ratner and Haney secured legal counsel through the Rutherford Institute, which appealed the long-term suspension to the school board in December 1999, but the board upheld the suspension. That decision prompted Ratner’s lawsuit against the school district for violation of his civil rights and challenging the district’s “zero-tolerance” policy on its face.
The policy states in part, “No student shall possess any weapon for any reason while under school control or supervision. The term weapon is intended to be construed broadly to cover and include any instrument which could injure, harm or endanger the physical well-being of another person.”
Rutherford Institute Chief Litigation Counsel Steven H. Aden, who represented Ratner and Haney in court, claims the zero-tolerance policy is too broad.
“Strict adherence to this policy would prohibit the possession of a sharpened pencil, pen, ruler, compass or scissors. If intent is not to be considered, then every student in the Loudoun County Schools is in violation of school policy (as are most of the teachers) for using all the normal tools employed in a learning environment,” Aden wrote in his appeal.
Speaking to WorldNetDaily, Aden emphasized the personal impact the policy had on Ratner, who was denied his right to be heard, he said.
“When we feel the school has to suspend a student for technically possessing a knife even though he saved a friend’s life, we’ve forgotten the human element. We’ve also accepted trampling on the rights and feelings of young people in order to force them to stay in line. I’m very concerned about that,” he remarked.
Many school have established zero-tolerance policies for various actions, including drug use or possession, violence or threats of violence and weapons possession. But effort to make schools safe has backfired in many cases. As reported by WND, there are numerous cases of “good” kids being punished as a result of the policies intended to weed out “bad seeds.” The Rutherford Institute hopes to bring common sense back to discussions about school safety.
“I think the path to safety in our schools is understanding where students are coming from and hearing them out — not kicking them out of school for technical violations of draconian zero-tolerance policies,” said Aden. “We’ve gone down the wrong road since Columbine.”
Indeed, more than 87,000 students were expelled nationwide in the 1997-98 school year, the latest statistics available from the Office for Civil Rights, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. There were more than 3.1 million children suspended that year, up from 1.7 million in the 1974-75 school year and 2.4 million in 1991-92.
“School officials who enforce ‘zero-tolerance’ policies without regard for the individual student’s motives are only reinforcing intolerance in our schoolchildren,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. “We hope that the federal appeals court will intervene and restore a sense of justice and fair play that Loudoun County denied Ben Ratner and his family.”
Ratner, who was home-schooled by a tutor during his suspension, is asking that his permanent record be expunged and that he be compensated for tutorial costs.
Attorney John Easton, who represents the school district in the case, was not available for comment, though a secretary said, “He probably wouldn’t have a comment anyway.”
If you’d like to sound off on this issue, please take part in the WorldNetDaily poll.