A 13-year-old eighth-grader was suspended from a Loudoun County school in early October and must remain away from classes until Jan. 26 because he took a knife from a classmate and put it in his locker instead of turning it over to school officials.
Attorneys for the boy, Benjamin A. Ratner, argued before a School Board disciplinary panel yesterday that the policy governing the situation failed to take circumstances into account, but the panel upheld the suspension.
Benjamin said a female classmate brought the kitchen paring knife to Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville inside a black notebook binder and passed him a note suggesting that she might use the weapon to kill herself.
He said he persuaded the girl to give him the notebook containing the knife, which he never saw. He planned to bring the knife home to his mother, he said, so that she could show it to the girl's parents and talk to them about seeking help for their daughter.
"No one had my locker combination, so I knew it would be safe there," Benjamin told a disciplinary panel yesterday.
But the girl told two other friends what had happened, and they notified school officials. She and Benjamin were immediately suspended for 10 days.
Benjamin has been out of school since the Oct. 8 incident because school officials later ordered that he remain suspended until the end of January. School officials did not say whether the girl has returned to school.
The three-member disciplinary panel was unanimous in upholding Benjamin's suspension. Candyce P. Cassell, one of the School Board members who sits on the panel, said, "We have to send a message to all of the students that we're serious about their safety."
Because the ruling was unanimous, Benjamin's family cannot appeal to the full board.
Attorneys for Benjamin, who lives in Purcellville, concede that he violated the school's weapons policy.
"But the policy as written is wrong because it does not consider extenuating circumstances," said Steven H. Aden, chief litigation counsel for the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group based in Charlottesville. The group also is representing one of two Arlington County fifth-graders charged with felonies for allegedly putting soap in their teacher's drinking water.
"We're not saying he didn't have a knife, but when you disregard motive and intent, you have denied due process," Aden said. "You can be in possession of an instrument for an innocuous, good-faith reason."
The district's policy says that a student who uses or has possession of a weapon while under school supervision is subject to expulsion or long-term suspension.
"Considering the facts, four months out of school is really extreme," said Maria E. Selig, another Rutherford Institute lawyer who appeared before the panel on Benjamin's behalf.
No matter what his intentions were, school officials said, Benjamin should have immediately handed the weapon to a teacher or administrator for safekeeping. If he had, he would not have been punished.
"It was correct to take the knife from her," said Roberta W. Griffith, an assistant principal at Blue Ridge. "We applaud that and have told him so many times."
Benjamin's mother, Beth Haney, said she is fearful that her son, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and has worked hard to earn B's and C's in school, is falling behind academically because of the suspension. Teachers are making homework assignments for him, but in some courses, there has been a three- or four-week lag in getting assignments from teachers, Haney said.
But Edward J. Kiley, one of the three board members who upheld Benjamin's suspension, said he was "certain that the student is going to receive the academic assistance that he needs."
His mother is unsure. "I don't know what's going to change now," she said.
CAPTION: Benjamin A. Ratner, 13, stands outside the Loudoun School Board Administration office in Leesburg.