TRI In The News
Spitwad School Assault Case Hits the Virginia Supreme Court
TRI IN THE NEWS: SPITWAD SCHOOL ASSAULT CASE HITS THE VIRGINIA SUPREME COURT
RICHMOND, VA (WTVR) - Is a pea-shooter a weapon?
Is it legal for a 14-year-old high school student who fired plastic spitballs in a hallway to be questioned by school officials and police without a parent or a lawyer present, and then charged with assault?
Is the school's code of conduct consistent with the punishment, which included a half-year suspension?
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel at the Virginia Supreme Court in downtown Richmond heard arguments and will determine whether the entire court should decide the case.
Rita Dunaway, an attorney for the Rutherford Institute, argued that classifying the pea-shooter as a weapon was a stretch and the student shouldn't have been accused of "violent criminal conduct" and punished under the school's code of conduct.
The weapon: the casing from an ink pen and toy pellets made out of hollow plastic.
The crime scene: the hallways at Spotsylvania High School, early last December.
The shooter: Andrew Mikel II, an honor student and ROTC member who says he dreamed of being a Marine, like his father, his entire life. His plan to attend the Naval Academy has been jeopardised by the misdemeanor charges. Even though they were dropped after he did community service, the record remains.
He said he was bored and fired his homemade, low-velocity pea-shooter at fellow students. There were no documented injuries.
"I did something stupid," Andrew said after court. But he doesn't think it was a criminal act worthy of the charges and punishment. "I can't get it through my head why they would do that."
The Rutherford Institute, a civil and religious liberties watchdog group, has taken on zero-tolerance cases like this across the country, in which there have been extreme reactions to innocent pranks and mistakes – like bringing nail clippers to school - in the wake of Columbine and other school violence.
"It's absurd that Andrew Mikel was not only suspended for the school year but characterized as a criminal," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "In addition to being arbitrary and capricious, the actions of school officials violate fundamental notions of fairness and established principles of due process. I hope the Virginia Supreme Court will bring justice to bear for Andrew Mikel."
Whitehead said heavy-handed zero-tolerance policies ruin children's lives and rob them of their educations.
Andrew's father, Andrew Mikel, said the school violated its own code of conduct by not having a parent present when the police questioned his son.
He finds it "insane" that what his son did had the same weight as bringing a shotgun to school in the county's eyes.
"We're criminalizing children," Mikel said. "If the Supreme Court doesn't stop this, they're saying anything that can launch a projectile can be considered a weapon. Case in point, you launch a rubber band off your finger. We're making criminals out of all these kids in school, for doing innocent pranks and other things. And yes, discipline is necessary, but not criminal punishment. You know, they take something simple, and now they've got four state agencies – they've got the Department of Justice, they've got the commonwealth's attorney, they've got the sheriff's department and the school board involved in someone shooting a spitwad. And they wonder why our country is broke."