(RED WING, Minn.) — A Minnesota student is fighting a five-day suspension for a public display of patriotism at his high school, which he says could hurt his chances of getting a scholarship with the Air Force.
Bryce Reps is among more than a dozen students at Red Wing High School being punished for painting slogans on school windows and doors, including “USA,” “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” and “NEVER FORGET 9/11,” with erasable chalk.
The students also drew red, white and blue streamers and stuck roughly 150 mini American flags around the grounds.
Reps, labeled as the “ringleader” of the group, is the only student who received a full five-day suspension, while the rest of his compatriots only got two days for defacing school property.
“My suspension is more severe than for someone who shows up to school drunk or has drugs on them.” Reps told ABC News. He said having this on his record would affect his ability to obtain a $15,000 Air Force college program scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota.
“I talked to a captain in the Air Force and that’ll make a big, big difference,” Reps said.
“There was never any intent to permanently damage anything. It was a prank. We just wanted to decorate the school to prove that we’re patriotic,” he said.
As part of Red Wing’s homecoming week festivities, seniors at the school initially wanted to celebrate “Merica Monday,” but were not permitted to because of racial connotations underlying the slogan. Instead, Reps said he struck a deal with administrators that would allow them to participate and dress up for a National Rride Day. But some students were still not happy with the decision, and around 8:30 p.m. on the last Sunday in September, snuck onto school grounds to revamp the premises with patriotic flair.
What the students didn’t realize was the temporary paint they used would only come off on glass and plastic, not wood. As a result, some school doors were permanently damaged and need replacing. The students’ parents have offered to bear the repair costs of over $2,000.
The school administration has labeled Reps, 17, as the ringleader of a group, which the student paper is now calling the “Winger Tea Party.”
Reps said he believes the school has completely mishandled the situation.
“They were treating it like the crime of the century,” he said. “They’re labeling it as vandalism. The word ‘terrorism’ was being thrown around. The doors needed to be repainted anyway.”
Reps, who is currently bargaining with the school to downgrade the severity of his five-day suspension, says he is being “targeted” for an earlier incident in September when he wrote a letter to the local paper criticizing the school’s decision not to commemorate the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
At the time Reps also drew up a petition that garnered over 400 student signatures. The school later amended its policies to include holding a moment of silence to mark the anniversary of the attacks.
But Red Wing Schools District Superintendent Karsten Anderson said he had previously commended Reps for his “well-written letter to the editor.”
“I don’t want to speculate or indicate why the students went onto school grounds,” he said.
In a memo to parents and staff last week, Anderson wrote that students “appropriately celebrated a Day of National Pride,” but overall their behavior was unacceptable, “regardless of their intentions or the content of their messages.”
Anderson also told ABC News that despite the episode, the rest of the National Pride Day festivities held last Monday were “great,” and that dozens of students “had a chance to express their patriotism” respectfully, showing up with the American flag in hand or emblazoned on their shirts.
When asked if the school would reduce Reps’ suspension, Anderson said an internal assessment would determine the outcome of any further actions.
“The high school administration and is going to review the overall incident and to make sure we’ve done the right thing,” he said.
The school previously found itself embroiled in controversy this year after a former student sued for racial discrimination, claiming the authorities allowed students to celebrate a homecoming event designated as “Wigger Day,” a day when white people dress up as black people.
Reps said he thinks the school overreacted about the flag-painting because of that law suit, but maintains that the students involved in this latest incident had good intentions.
“I really do love my country,” Reps said. “We’re all straight A’s, National Honor Society students, not a group of bad kids making a bad decision.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ian Kerner, CNN
Eli Watkins, CNN
Madison Park, Keith Allen and Andreas Preuss, CNN