Eighth-Grader Falls Under Hammer of Zero Tolerance

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A legal group has come to the defense of an eighth-grader who was suspended for four months from a Virginia middle school for taking a knife away from a suicidal classmate. The group claims that the boy is an innocent victim of the school's zero tolerance policy on weapons.

Officials at Blue Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County, VA, suspended eighth-grade student Benjamin Ratner for four months after they discovered a knife in the boy's locker.

However, the way in which the knife came to be in the boy's possession merely illustrates his good character, school officials and defense lawyers both say.

One of Ratner's friends passed him a note saying that she had brought a knife to school, hidden in her notebook, and was contemplating suicide. The boy persuaded the girl to give him the knife, which he put in his locker for safekeeping until he could take it out of the school and have his mother speak to his friend's parents.

When a fellow student informed school officials of the knife in Ratner's locker, the boy was immediately suspended under the school's zero tolerance policy for weapons' possession.

"No one doesn't believe the story," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, VA, the organization that has come to the boy's defense. "Even the teachers said what he did was laudable. He's just another innocent person who has fallen under the hammer of zero tolerance."

The Rutherford Institute has filed a complaint in US District Court on behalf of Ratner, asking that his permanent school record be expunged. The Institute also included Ratner's mother in the complaint, saying that she should be compensated for the money she spent to place him in private school to make up for the time he lost during the suspension. Ratner was suspended from Blue Ridge Middle School from October 8, 1999 to January 25, 2000.

An Institute attorney appealed to the school board on the boy's behalf in December, but the board upheld the suspension.

"This is a kid that didn't bring a knife on the campus. He took one away from someone. There was no intent to bring a weapon on campus. When you got a zero tolerance policy, they don't look on intent. But when you're dealing with people, you always have to look at intent, especially kids," Whitehead said.

The brief charges the Loudoun County Schools and officials at Blue Ridge Middle School with conspiracy and violations of Ratner's constitutional rights of due process as well as violating the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Ratner has an attention deficit, hyperactive disorder, Whitehead said.

"Under federal law, he was supposed to be provided with alternative education, which was never done," Whitehead added.

Loudoun County Schools declined to comment on the case because it is currently under litigation. However, a spokeswoman said school authorities did not consider their policy to be one of zero tolerance. "There is opportunity for interpretation," she said.