The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review a case regarding "zero tolerance" discipline policies in schools and whether they infringe upon students’ constitutional rights. The case involved an eighth-grade student named Benjamin A. Ratner from Virginia who was suspended for possessing a knife on school grounds. Ratner had taken the knife away from a classmate who was contemplating suicide and stored it in his own locker. Despite some people commending Ratner for his actions, the Loudoun County school district immediately suspended him. A school administrative panel and the county school board’s discipline committee later extended the suspension until February 2000.
Ratner’s mother, Beth Haney, filed a lawsuit on his behalf, arguing that the school district’s decision violated his 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process of law. However, the federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia dismissed the case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia upheld the dismissal. One judge on the panel expressed sympathy for Ratner, stating that he was a "victim of good intentions gone too far."
The judge acknowledged that the four-month suspension imposed on Ratner was unwarranted but did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. In their appeal to the Supreme Court (Ratner v. Loudoun County Public Schools, Case No. 01-746), Ratner’s lawyers argued for a review of the constitutionality of zero-tolerance policies. They claimed that the school district’s actions were arbitrary, capricious, and irrational.
The lawyers questioned the impact of such policies on ordinary students who may unknowingly violate them, given that Ratner faced semester expulsion and a permanent record for trying to save a life. The school district, however, defended its actions, arguing that its disciplinary policy did not align with the definition of "zero tolerance." The district’s stance was that its policy allowed officials to consider the individual circumstances and determine an appropriate punishment. They considered Ratner’s suspension for the remainder of one semester as an exercise of discretion, given that the policy required a minimum one-year suspension for weapons possession. The district justified the one-semester suspension by claiming Ratner knowingly possessed the knife and chose to keep it in his locker rather than surrender it to the school.
Overall, the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case leaves the constitutional questions surrounding zero-tolerance policies in schools unanswered.