THE LOUDOUN County school system claims to have taught 13-year-old Benjamin A. Ratner a lesson, but what a confusing, harmful message it is: If you do the right thing--gently disarm a classmate who is talking suicide--but don't do it precisely by the book, you get tossed out of school.

A girl in his class had brought a kitchen paring knife, tucked inside a notebook binder, to Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville. The girl passed Benjamin a note suggesting that she might use the knife to kill herself.

Benjamin says he persuaded the girl to give him the binder with the knife, which he never did see. He said he planned to bring the knife home to his mother so she could take it to the girl's parents and talk with them about seeking help for their daughter. Benjamin put the knife in his locker, which he concluded was a safe place because no one else had his combination. But when the girl told two friends, they told school officials. The girl and Benjamin were suspended immediately for 10 days.

As it turns out, Benjamin has been out of school ever since the Oct. 8 incident; officials later ordered him suspended until Jan. 26. That decision was upheld unanimously this week by a school board disciplinary panel. Said one of its three members, "We have to send a message to all of the students that we're serious about their safety."

Benjamin was only concerned about one student's safety, and that wasn't enough for the panel to consider extenuating circumstances. So because he didn't immediately turn in the weapon to a teacher or administrator, Benjamin is not learning in school at all anymore.

Zero tolerance, zero sense.