Jacob Zimmerman's future was brimming with promise: He had an acceptance letter to Georgia Tech in hand and a shot at becoming his high school class valedictorian.
A can of spray paint could change all that.
Zimmerman, 17, could wind up a felon because of a high school prank that spiraled out of control.
He was among the two dozen people, nearly all of them students, arrested in early March in connection with vandalism at East Paulding High School, in Dallas northwest of Atlanta.
After midnight on March 11, authorities got a call from a passerby who saw people painting the school. When deputies arrived, the painters scattered but some were caught and they named others.
Buildings, roadways, signs, two county-owned vehicles and the brick entry to a nearby subdivision were painted. Officials said it cost $7,500 to scrub it all clean.
Zimmerman and the others were charged with a felony count of interference with government property, which carries a sentence of one to five years. After a 10-day suspension, he stood before a tribunal that booted him from school for the duration of the semester. He was taking four advanced placement classes but will be enrolling at Paulding County's Ombudsman Program, a school for suspended or expelled kids. It doesn't offer AP classes and Zimmerman will have to keep up on his own to maintain his grades.
"I feel like all of the students, including myself, have gone through enough punishment," Zimmerman said. "They had to take it to the extreme."
East Paulding Principal Scott Viness recommended long-term suspension and it was affirmed by a trio of school system administrators at a hearing last week. Brian Otott, associate superintendent for the Paulding County School District, fielded questions for Viness, but said he couldn't discuss student discipline cases. He said Zimmerman and his family can appeal the decision to the school board.
Zimmerman said he didn't paint the school, but admits he painted a skull and crossbones on the road at the intersection outside the school. It's a tradition executed by seniors there for about a decade, he said. "I'm the senior class president, so I just wanted to be involved in a senior class legacy that happens every year," he said.
Zimmerman said he went home when others headed to the school because he could tell "a bad situation" was developing. He later turned himself in.
School policy allows for long-term suspension when off-campus behavior triggers a felony charge and when the student's continued attendance poses potential danger to people or property or "disrupts the educational process."
Lester Tate, a lawyer for the family, said Viness justified the penalty by saying the incident had stirred bad publicity and that Zimmerman's presence would fan the flames.
"A public outcry doesn't justify expelling a kid with a record like his," Tate said.
Denise Zimmerman, Jacob's mother, said her son deserved a 10-day suspension, but not the possible foreclosure of his future.
"At the time of this incident, he was ranked number one in the class of 2012," she said. She hopes the felony charge -- and the suspension for the duration of his high school career -- doesn't prevent him from studying aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech.
"We thought the punishment was over the top," she said. "It was so severe, we were dumbfounded."
Tate said he doubted the felony charge would "stick," but Dick Donovan, the Paulding district attorney, disagreed, saying the 22 students and two recent graduates were "parties to a crime" and could be charged together regardless of each person's role or intent.
"Some people break the law because they're criminals," he said. "Some people break the law because they're not thinking straight."
Donovan and his staff debated whether to reduce the charges and though he's made up his mind, he won't reveal his plans until 2 p.m. on April 13, when the defendants have been invited to meet with him at the Paulding courthouse.
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