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Plastic pellet incident at Va. school ends in expulsion, assault charges

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 8:55 PM

Andrew Mikel II admits it was a stupid thing to do. In December, bored and craving attention, the 14-year-old used a plastic tube to blow small plastic pellets at fellow students in Spotsylvania High School. In one lunch period, he scored three hits.

"They flinched. They looked annoyed," Mikel said.

The school district saw it as more than a childish prank. School officials expelled him for possession and use of a weapon, and they called a deputy sheriff to the scene, said Mikel and his father, Andrew Mikel Sr.

The younger Mikel, a freshman, said he was charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault. The case was first reported by the Web site WorldNetDaily.

Spotsylvania school officials declined to comment on the incident, citing student confidentiality rules. But documents that the school produced when Mikel's father filed a Freedom of Information Act request show internal division over the matter.

The federal Gun-Free Schools Act mandates that schools expel students who take weapons, including hand guns, explosive devices and projectile weapons, to school. E-mail traffic among school officials showed they ruled that Mikel's plastic tube, which was fashioned from a pen casing, met the definition of a projectile weapon because it was "used to intimidate, threaten or harm others."

School officials in some e-mails referred to the plastic casing as a "metal tube." The plastic pellets were called "B-Bs."

"We have an obligation to protect the students in our building from others who pose a threat to the over-all safe learning environment," Russell Davis, principal of Spotsylvania High, wrote to other school officials in one e-mail.

But the school's hearing officer, John Lynn, wrote to administrators that he was "not at all comfortable expelling or suspending this student for the remainder of the year," according to the documents. School officials insisted. When Mikel's father appealed the case, the school board's three-member disciplinary committee upheld the ruling.

"I was just astonished when I heard," said the younger Mikel, who is being home-schooled.

Parents and civil liberties advocates point to the case as an illustration of the excesses of "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies implemented in many school districts across Virginia and the nation. The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties organization, is appealing the case in state Circuit Court.

"What happened to Andrew Mikel is an example of how oppressive zero-tolerance policies have become," said John W. Whitehead, president of the institute. "School officials have developed a very dangerous mind-set that allows virtually no freedom for students, while at the same time criminalizing childish behavior."

In December, the apparent suicide of Nick Stuban, who had been expelled from Fairfax County's W.T. Woodson High School weeks before his death, sparked concern about the district's disciplinary policy, which some parents called overly punitive.

Virginia officials say 3,557 students were expelled in the state in the 2008-09 school year, but most of those expulsions were later modified to suspensions.

The three Spotsylvania school board members who rejected Mikel's appeal did not return phone messages. Amanda Blalock, a board member not on the disciplinary committee, said that Spotsylvania officials have latitude in implementing state and federal disciplinary regulations, despite claims by some administrators that they are hamstrung by such policies.

"There's still plenty of flexibility at the local level," Blalock said. "Sometimes we're just dealing with a stupid mistake a kid makes, not a criminal action."

Mikel will be cleared of the misdemeanor criminal charges if he participates in a year-long diversion program, he said. The county sheriff's office did not return messages seeking comment.

Some residents and Spotsylvania officials are questioning the school district's handling of the case.

"More and more school districts apply these zero-tolerance policies, and common sense goes out the window," said Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg). "Something like this can haunt a kid for the rest of his life, just for a little mischief."

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