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Education Reporter

'Noble' Student's Action Punished
Mother challenges 'zero tolerance' policy
RICHMOND, VA - An 8th-grade student who took a knife away from a suicidal classmate in 1999 was suspended for four months for possessing a weapon in violation of the school's zero tolerance policy. Ben Ratner was attending class at the Blue Ridge Middle School when a friend slipped him a note revealing that she had a knife hidden in her notebook and was contemplating suicide. Familiar with the girl's troubled history, Ratner asked her to give him the knife. She refused, and he took the notebook from her and locked it in his locker, intending to take it home and enlist his nurse mother's help in contacting the girl's parents.

Instead, school officials found out about the knife from another student and confronted Ratner. When he turned the weapon over to the school dean, he was immediately suspended for 10 days. The suspension was extended to four months following a review by the school board. Shortly after the incident, the girl slashed her wrists in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Ben's mother, Beth Haney, secured representation from the Rutherford Institute in December 1999 and launched an appeal to the Loudoun County School Board to reverse her son's lengthy suspension. The request was denied. School officials admitted that, while Ben's actions had been "noble" and "admirable" and he posed no danger to himself or anyone else, his suspension would nonetheless stand. Haney then filed suit against the district for violation of Ben's right of due process, challenging the zero tolerance policy.

Rutherford Chief Litigation Counsel Steven Aden told WorldNetDaily (5-20-01) that the school district's zero tolerance policy is intentionally broad, and covers "any instrument which could injure, harm or endanger the physical well-being of another person." Aden noted in his appeal, which is currently being heard in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, that "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."

Ms. Haney's complaint is also asking the court to order her son's school record expunged. She and her attorneys are seeking punitive damages for "willful and wanton" conduct on the part of the school district and monetary compensation to enroll Ben in private school.

"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," attorney Aden said. "We've gone down the wrong road since Columbine."

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