By Linda Carroll, NBC's TODAY
The parents of two students at a high school in Pekin, Ill., who were suspended for bringing so-called "energy mints" to school are demanding that administrators publicly clear their sons' names and expunge the suspension from the boys' official transcripts.
Appearing live in the studio on TODAY, Jason McMichael and Marcie Malcom said they were both stunned when school officials refused to back off the suspensions even after lab testing showed that the energy mints were simply caffeine pills similar to the popular over-the-counter stimulant No-Doz.
"After they told me it was a mint and that he would continue on with his two-day suspension and he was not allowed to go to homecoming, I was floored," Malcom told TODAY's Matt Lauer. "You know, it's a mint. These kids bring coffee to school."
McMichael said he was concerned about the impact the suspension would have on his son's future.
"I'm wanting the records cleared," McMichael told Lauer. "This is going to affect them for the rest of their lives. It will be on their high school transcripts. This could affect college, future jobs. Their reputations are down the tubes, so I want this wiped off their records."
Eric McMichael, 17, and Bradley Malcom, 14, were suspended from Pekin Community High School in Pekin, Ill., last Wednesday, along with two other boys, when school staff observed them sharing the unlabeled white tablets with friends. School officials called the parents and told them they were worried that these were illegal drugs and that the tablets were being sent out for testing.
When the call came in, Jason McMichael was worried that his son might have gotten into serious trouble.
"My worst fear was that this was something actually bad - like pot or meth or coke," McMichael told Lauer. "Any of the above."
Marcie Malcom agreed, adding "I was worried that this is the moment ... Oh my God, here is the moment every parent dreads."
But then the test results came back and the parents learned that their kids had brought caffeinated tablets to school, not illicit drugs.
"At the point they sent Eric home from school, at that point, I just thought the school was being cautious," Jason McMichael said. "I'm all for that. They said they wanted to get the product tested to verify that it was not an illegal drug and was what they said it was. I didn't think suspension was in the cards then."
In a statement, the school district's superintendent said that the boys' suspensions were consistent with school policy.
"Pekin Community High School approaches the consumption of mood-altering substances very seriously given both the health risks at issue and a mission to keep both illegal and legal drugs and substances out of school," superintendent Paula Davis wrote. "The school has adopted both policies and student handbook provisions which prohibit possession, distribution, and consumption of such substances at school."
The issue for the school, Davis explained, is the dose of caffeine in each pill.
"School representatives eventually learned that the pills contained high doses of caffeine," Davis noted in her statement. "After the fact it was determined that a single pill contained over 200 percent of the amount of caffeine in a 'No-Doz' tablet and almost three times the amount of caffeine as found in an entire can of Red-Bull Sports drink. Although the pills were described by some of the students as 'energy mints,' all of the students at issue acknowledged that they were either told or understood before the distribution or consumption about the nature and effect of the pills."
The boys didn't see it that way. They figured if energy drinks like Monster or Rockstar were OK, then why not energy mints?
"All I know is that it was an energy drink in a mint form," Eric McMichael told Lauer.
NBC News checked out the caffeine levels of a variety of products and found that energy mints weren't very different from an extra-large coffee or an energy drink.
•16-ounce cup of coffee = 100 mg caffeine
•A can of soda = 35 to 55 mg caffeine
•Energy drinks = 76 to 207 mg caffeine
•Caffeine mints = 85 to 101 mg caffeine
But what about claims that the mints might be a health hazard? Dr. David Zich is concerned that the mints might make it too easy to ingest high levels of caffeine.
As it turns out, you can overdose on caffeine if you take a lot of it. There are sporadic reports in the medical literature describing cases in which people consumed entire bottles of caffeine pills to commit suicide. In those cases, people were found to have taken 100 to 200 tablets that each contained about 100 mg of caffeine.
Toxic levels of caffeine can produce vomiting, abdominal pain and such symptoms as agitation, altered conscious state, rigidity and seizures. Very high doses of caffeine can also result in dangerous heart rhythm changes.
"If you want to get a lot of caffeine it's hard to do with a cup of coffee or an energy drink," said Zich, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. "You'll get bloated and too full after two or three drinks and stop. With mints it's very easy to overdose because you keep on popping them."