USA-v-YOUIt didn’t look like a real gun. It shot plastic pellets. It was labeled “Zombie Killer.” It didn’t hurt anyone. And it was being used on private property by a seventh-grader.

Nonetheless, some officious intermeddler called the Virginia Beach police when she saw Khalid Caballo holding an air-soft gun on his front lawn. And, thanks to their Larkspur Middle School’s “zero tolerance” policy on guns, Khalid and two of his friends have received long-term suspensions.

According to the witness who called the police, Khalid and several other children were playing with the gun in Khalid’s front yard before the school bus arrived. The witness observed Khalid refining his zombie-killing skills by shooting at a target, complete with a net to catch the plastic pellets. Mind you, the caller, whose son was shot in the arm with one of the plastic pellets, could tell from a distance that the gun was not real and that the kids were playing, but she chose to call the police anyway (rather than the children’s parents) because the sight made her feel “uncomfortable.”

The police investigated. The Virginia Beach City Code provides that “no person shall use a pneumatic gun except at approved shooting ranges or within private property.” Khalid claims that he remained on private property while shooting the gun. The police demonstrated common sense by not charging anyone.

But Larkspur Middle School Principal Matthew Delaney recommended that they be expelled. In a sickeningly sanctimonious public statement, Delaney announced his intention to punish the children and professed his “sincere hope that they will learn important life lessons; the most important being that there will be consequences when they do things that can result in harm to another person.” The three students have been suspended for the entire academic year.

Khalid understands the gravity of the situation. Real gun or not, he will carry the stigma of suspension with him wherever he goes: “It’s on your school record. The school said I had possession of a firearm. They aren’t going to ask me any questions. They are going to think it was a real gun, and I was trying to hurt someone.”

The great judge Learned Hand once wrote, “Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad.” In the hands of thoughtless bureaucrats like Principal Delaney, they become weapons far more threatening than Khalid’s Zombie Killer. In the name of teaching students the consequences of taking actions that can (but did not) result in minor physical harm, Delaney and his callous colleagues have taken actions that stand a far greater chance of causing lasting harm to these students’ academic careers and life prospects. Shame on these “educators” for insisting upon a zero-tolerance policy that makes zero sense.

The Heritage Foundation’s project USA vs. YOU spotlights the flood of criminal laws threatening our liberties. Explore more stories of overcriminalization and find out what you can do to reverse this trend.