The family of a Virginia teen suspended for the remainder of the school year for shooting plastic "spitwads" at students in the hallway is targeting the school district's zero-tolerance policy, claiming that it's "criminalizing childish behavior."
Andrew Mikel II, a freshman honor student at Spotsylvania High School who also is active in Junior ROTC, is filling an appeal to be reinstated and have his record cleared after school officials suspended him for using what appeared to be the hollow body of a pen to blow small plastic balls at three students during his lunch period last December.
The 14-year-old initially was hit with a 10-day suspension, but the Spotsylvania County School Board later voted to extend the punishment for the rest of the school year, citing the Student Code of Conduct's requirement that a student found with "any type of weapon, or object used to intimidate, threaten or harm others" be "expelled for a minimum of 365 days" unless "special circumstances exist."
The district also referred the case to the Spotsylvania Sheriff's Office, which charged him with three counts of misdemeanor assault.
As result Mikel entered a diversion program – which includes community service and substance abuse and anger management counseling – to avoid prosecution, but his father says his damaged record has shattered his hopes of attending the U.S. Naval Academy after graduation.
Capt. Liz Scott Spotsylvania Sherriff's Office says while Mikel's punishment may be controversial, "assault is assault is assault."
"There were three victims that were involved in this, and I think the public needs to remember that," Scott told FoxNews.com.
Scott said those victims, two females and one male, complained of feeling a "pinch" or "sting" when they were hit with the pellets and one even had a welt on her arm as result.
"They were asking him to stop, he replied, 'No.' When they asked him, 'Why are you doing this?' he said, 'because I want to,'" she said.
Citing the school's 'zero tolerance' policy, Assistant Principal Lisa Andruss at a December 21 disciplinary hearing said that Mikel presented a danger and that the boy's behavior was indicative of a trend because he was disciplined in seventh grade for shooting rubber bands with a ruler and suspended for three days in 8th grade for bringing a comb to school that resembled a pocket knife, his father said.
As a result, the guidance department said Andrew, who had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy after graduation, can no longer be considered as an applicant, his father said.
"I'm scratching my head at the whole thing," Andrew Mikel Sr. told FoxNews.com. "One thing is he must attend substance abuse counseling – he's never had a substance abuse issue in his life."
The older Mikel, a 39-year-old former Navy Seabee and Marine officer, said he was shocked that his son's future could be so heavily affected over "a spitwad."
"Right from the get go the Assistant Principal Lisa Andruss said, 'Come pick up your son, he's being suspended for 10 days, we're recommending expulsion, and we're going to push this to the fullest extent of the law," he told FoxNews.com. "When I arrived she showed me what amounts to a pee shooter: a plastic pen casing about four inches long and these little plastic balls that he'd had from a toy guy that he had years ago and found in his closet recently. This thing is harmless."
According to the school incident report Mikel said he used the "small plastic tube and a handful of plastic pellets" to shoot at least three students because he "thought it would be cool."
His father says he tried to talk Andruss into giving his son a more lenient punishment, but Mikel said she had already had his son interrogated by police and her mind was made up.
"I tried to talk to her and say, 'We understand this is wrong, but doesn't this seem a little excessive?' And she was just dead set this was what they were going to do," the older Mikel said.
Two disciplinary hearings later, on January 18, the school board voted to suspend the teen for the rest of the year.
"What happened to Andrew Mikel is an example of how oppressive zero tolerance policies have become," said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which is representing Mikel Jr. "School officials have developed a very dangerous mindset that allows virtually no freedom for students, while at the same time criminalizing childish behavior."
Still, even school officials were divided on the issue.
Principal Russell Davis called it a "clear-cut case" for a minimum "365 day expulsion," in an email to Andruss and Spotsylvania's coordinator of school safety, John Lynn. The email was one of several documents secured by the Mikels through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"We have an obligation to protect the students in our building from others who pose a threat to the over-all safe learning environment," Davis wrote.
Lynn, on the other hand, wrote in the same string of emails that he was "not at all comfortable expelling or suspending this student for the remainder of the year," recommending instead that Mikel be allowed to return to school after his initial 10-day suspension.
Mikel says he thinks detention probably would have been more fitting.
"My son did an infraction and he deserves a just punishment but this is like cutting someone's hand off for stealing a piece of cabbage," he said. "If my son, instead of shooting a spitball, went up and punched a student right in the face he would only have gotten five days suspension and even if he'd drawn blood the school resource officer said police still wouldn't have gotten involved."
"It takes four state agencies to go after someone with a spitwad: It takes the sheriff's department, the commonwealth attorney, the school board on various levels and the department of juvenile justice … what a fine use of taxpayer resources," he added.
Whitehead says he will appeal the decision next week and hopes to have the teen's record expunged.
"The next step is 30 days from January 17 there's an appeals process to the state circuit court in Virgina," he told FoxNews.com. "We're going to go through that appeal to see if the local circuit court will reverse the suspension, which would hopefully help reverse the criminal charges."
Spotsylvania County schools spokeswoman Sara Branner said the school couldn't discuss the case due to privacy issues.