Day after day over the last month, teachers at Blue Ridge Middle School have grown angrier as they saw their administrators chastised by the national media and the public for suspending an eighth-grader for weapon possession.
The case of Benjamin A. Ratner has attracted attention because Benjamin, 13, said he took a knife away from a girl who was contemplating suicide and put it in his locker for safekeeping. National newspaper columnists have lashed out at the school and the Loudoun County school district, saying a four-month suspension was unduly harsh. A story that aired Dec. 17 on "Dateline NBC" also criticized school officials' actions.
It was the talk in the teachers' lounge at lunch each day and when the staff entered and exited the Purcellville campus. So they decided to do something about it.
Last week, 38 staff members put their names on a letter backing Principal Joseph L. Mauck Jr. and other top officials on campus.
"We would like to express support of our Blue Ridge Middle School administration in regard to the recent highly publicized events surrounding the violation of Loudoun County's weapons policy and the subsequent suspension case," the 1 1/2 page letter begins. "We feel that a difficult decision was made with the utmost thought and concern given to all parties involved."
Tim Sparbanie, who teaches social studies to seventh- and eighth-graders at Blue Ridge, said, "We felt the media totally misrepresented the facts," adding that school officials had to comply with the district's weapon policy and punish Benjamin, despite his good intentions.
"You can't look at a child and decide the policy doesn't apply to him," he said. "Legally, you can't do it. If you have a policy, the courts have said as long as you follow your policy consistently, you will be okay."
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. Benjamin said he put the knife in his locker intending to take it to his mother and let her intervene with the girl's parents. Two of the girl's friends told administrators he had the knife.
Mauck said he has received a dozen letters that he described as "hate mail." One profanity-laced note was attached to a newspaper clipping and called him "an ass," he said. A Christmas card from a grandmother in Wisconsin advised him to "show better judgment next time."
Benjamin returns to school in two weeks, said Mauck, who wants it to be a smooth adjustment for the teenager and the rest of the Blue Ridge school community.