The U.S. Supreme Court last week passed up a chance to review whether school “zero tolerance” discipline policies are so harsh that they violate the constitutional rights of students.
The court on Jan. 22 declined without comment to review the case of a Virginia 8th grader who was suspended one semester for possession of a knife on school grounds. The student, Benjamin A. Ratner, had taken a binder containing the knife away from a suicidal classmate and placed it in his own locker in October 1999.
While some people commended Mr. Ratner because his friend had attempted suicide twice before, officials of the 34,000-student Loudoun County, Va., school district immediately suspended the boy. An administrative panel from the school district and the discipline committee of the county school board later suspended Mr. Ratner through the rest of the first semester, until Feb. 1, 2000.
The boy’s mother, Beth Haney, sued on his behalf in federal district court, alleging that the school district’s decision to suspend her son had violated Mr. Ratner’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection and due process of law. A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., threw the case out, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., affirmed the dismissal.
One judge on the three-member panel, which ruled unanimously for the school district, expressed sympathy for Mr. Ratner, saying the student was the “victim of good intentions run amuck.”
“The panic over school violence and the intent to stop it has caused school officials to jettison the common- sense idea that a person’s punishment should fit his crime in favor of a single harsh punishment, namely, mandatory school suspension,” wrote U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Clyde H. Hamilton.
Defining Zero Tolerance
The judge said that the boy’s four-month suspension for his actions was unjustified, but that the punishment did not rise to the level of a federal constitutional violation.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Ratner v. Loudoun County Public Schools (Case No. 01-746), the boy’s lawyers from the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute asked the court to use the case to review the constitutionality of zero-tolerance policies.
The school district’s actions in Mr. Ratner’s case amounted to “arbitrary, capricious, and irrational government conduct,” said the appeal filed on behalf of the boy.
“If a semester expulsion and a permanent record of a ‘weapons possession’ are imposed on a student who intervened to save a life, ... what becomes of ordinary students who run afoul of such policies?” the brief said.
The Loudoun County district defended its actions and argued that its disciplinary policy did not fit the definition of “zero tolerance.”
The school district’s policy “allows school officials to consider the facts and circumstances of each case and fashion an appropriate punishment,” its brief said. Since the district’s policy for dealing with weapons possession by a student requires a minimum one-year suspension, the district was already exercising discretion by suspending Mr. Ratner for only the rest of one semester, the brief argued.
The district told the high court that the one-semester suspension was justified because Mr. Ratner “knowingly possessed the knife and knowingly chose to place the knife in his locker rather than turn it over to school officials.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Declines to Accept ‘Zero Tolerance’ Case