Decked out in a shirt and tie last Wednesday, Garden City High School sophomore football player Jace Banner handed a typewritten statement to the officials at his expulsion hearing.
The statement apologized for the negative attention two separate AirSoft pellet gun incidents on school property involving Banner had brought upon his school, team and the community. Banner read aloud the numerous letters of recommendation sent in on his behalf.
He sat and watched as the parents of a student that accused him of shooting her in the forehead with the gun testified on his behalf. He watched as his football coach, Mike Smith, came and testified as a character witness.
A few hours after the hearing ended, Banner, also a standout wrestler, was handed a long letter detailing the board's decision -- the final few words of which sealed his fate.
"They took a break after I presented my case," Banner said. "Then they came back to me with a letter, and the last sentence told me I was being expelled for 186 days."
Banner registered 38 tackles in four games for the Buffaloes this season, and took fourth place in the 189-pound division at the Class 6A state wrestling tournament as a freshman.
His school-year length expulsion comes in response to incidents involving an AirSoft pellet gun, one on Sept. 6 and another on Sept. 11. On Sept. 6, Banner, along with teammates Brodrick Smith, Banner's half-brother, and Brad Hoggatt were spotted with an AirSoft pellet gun on school property. On Sept. 11, Banner allegedly discharged an AirSoft gun and struck an unnamed female student in the forehead.
While Banner admits to playing with the AirSoft gun, he firmly maintains that he never intentionally fired at another person.
Finney County attorney John Wheeler said this morning that his office has charged Banner with three juvenile counts of battery and one juvenile count of assault in reference to the Sept. 11 incident.
The battery counts stem from incidents in which Banner is alleged to have shot individuals with the AirSoft gun, and the assault count stems from an incident in which Banner is said to have allegedly threatened someone with the gun.
"I didn't shoot anyone," Banner said. "I'm not going to change my story because I was expelled or anything. I'm going to stick with it."
According to Banner, he, Hoggatt and Smith were brought into the office of athletic director Bill Weatherly on Sept. 6 and were asked to retrieve the gun from Hoggatt's car and bring it back to Weatherly's office. According to Banner, Weatherly then test-fired the gun in his office, and the students left after a lengthy discussion of the incident. Banner said the three were told they would find out about their punishment at a later date.
The three played in a football game the next day, a 29-7 Garden City win over Ulysses, and were given one day of in-school-suspension the following Monday, Sept. 10.
Weatherly did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article, but did talk about the incident with The Telegram earlier this month.
"They didn't get held out of the game because they did not violate any rules that would result in a suspension," Weatherly said at the time.
Four weeks later, Banner was called into the office of associate principal Brad Springston, who confronted him with accusations that he had shot a female student on Sept. 11.
"He basically said 'A girl said you shot her in the forehead,'" Banner said. "I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He basically was telling me how it was. He was telling me that I did this and that. It was kind of an argument."
Banner later spoke with associate principal Tracy Newell, and according to Banner the conversation went much the same as with Springston. After the two interviews, Banner still played against Wichita Northwest on Oct. 5 before being suspended from school for 10 days on Oct. 12.
According to both Banner and his mother, Janell Banner, Newell seemed adamant about making the eventual punishment as stiff as possible.
"Tracy Newell has been the most negative," Janell Banner said. "I just felt like he was the one that wanted to push the harshest punishment. He was always polite, but I didn't feel like he was looking out for Jace's best interest. He wanted to push his authority the farthest."
Calls to Newell, Springston, and all other Garden City administrators were forwarded to USD 457's Director of Public Information Roy Cessna.
When contacted, Cessna declined comment, citing the incident as a "student discipline issue." Cessna also refused to name the members of Banner's expulsion board, citing district policy.
According to both Banner and Coach Mike Smith, the use of AirSoft guns among the student body has been widespread recently.
"I'll say this, (the guns) were being used by hundreds of kids all this summer at the parks and different places," Coach Smith said. "It just so happens that Jace got caught. Sometimes things happen, and I hope Jace comes out of this a better person."
In response to the AirSoft incidents, USD 457 recently modified its policies to classify the AirSoft guns as weapons rather than toys.
Although Banner plans on filing an appeal with the district, he currently is exploring a move to another school district.
On Monday, Banner was visiting Lee's Summitt High School in suburban Kansas City, Mo. The sophomore also is considering transferring to Dodge City High School.
When asked about the details of the appeals process after an expulsion, Cessna indicated that he was not familiar with the procedure and could not give a comment.
Although the 186-day expulsion would last an entire school year, the terms of the expulsion dictate it is possible that Banner could return to school on Jan. 8 on a probationary basis. While on probation, Banner would be required to maintain a certain grade point average, attend and not be late for class, and would not be allowed to participate in sports.
Mike Smith hopes the 16-year-old standout sticks around that long.
"I just hope that Jace will come back to school and we don't lose him," Smith said. "Jace is a good team player. Athletically he can help us, but he's got a lot of people in his corner. When he's an influence, he's a positive one. He's one of the better athletes, and he's very good to the kids who don't get as much playing time. It's not all about Jace being the star."
Per USD 457 regulation, Banner has 10 days from his hearing date of Oct. 24 to file his appeal in the form of a handwritten note to the board explaining his case.
"Jace has always been respectful of authority," Janell Banner said. "He could always do better in his classes, but he's never been disrespectful. Even at the hearing, he bent over backwards to please the board. We feel like he's been tried in the newspaper, ridiculed in the school newspaper. Even on his MySpace page, almost daily, he'll receive comments ridiculing him. He feels like the community thinks of him as a criminal.
"This thing with the AirSoft guns goes on with half the football team, and other players have been doing this for years. He's not going to name any names, but it's just amazing that he's the one."