When Caitlin Miller's teachers took her to the principal's office last week the 5-year-old did not understand why.
She had been playing with her best friends during recess at her Raeford, North Carolina, school playground, just like any other day. She pretended that her two friends were a king and queen, and that she was in charge of protecting the kingdom. "I was the guard," Caitlin told WTVD.
Noticing a stick shaped like a gun on the ground, Caitlin picked it up and pretended to shoot intruders entering the kingdom.
But by playing with this stick, her school administrators said, Caitlin was violating school policies.
The 5-year-old was suspended for one day for "turning a stick into a gun and threatening to shoot and kill other students", the elementary school's assistant principal wrote in a note to Caitlin's parents. School officials even attached a picture of the stick she was using, which Caitlin's mother posted to Facebook.
"One minute she's playing with her friends and the next her teachers are dragging her to the principal's office," her mother, Brandy Miller, told WTVD. "She's confused. Nobody explained anything to her."
Caitlin didn't understand what a suspension was, or why it was happening to her, her mother wrote on Facebook. Miller struggled to explain to her daughter that it was wrong to play certain games at recess, because she felt a child her age should be allowed to play make-believe games. She didn't want to have to discuss school shootings with her daughter, or tell her that she's not "allowed to play like that at school because people do bad things to kids your age."
She told her daughter, "you can't say you're going to shoot and kill people." And Caitlin looked at her, confused, saying "I never said that?" her mother wrote on Facebook.
In a statement, the Hoke County Schools district said it "will not tolerate assaults, threats or harassment from any student".
"Any student engaging in such behavior will be removed from the classroom or school environment for as long as is necessary to provide a safe and orderly environment for learning," the school system said.
In a Facebook post, the school system added that its policy "prohibits retaliatory isolation of individual students, and the system's first priority is to provide every available opportunity for student success".
Caitlin returned to school Tuesday after her one-day suspension, and felt alienated by her friends and teachers as a result of the punishment, her mother said.
"She feels like all the teachers hate her," Miller wrote on Facebook. "I can't imagine being five and feeling that way."
The mother said she felt Caitlin's game at recess was "blown way out of proportion."
"Don't they still make Nerf guns and water guns that kids shoot each other with?" Miller wrote on Facebook. "Don't kids still play paintball and laser tag? I can see a suspension for an older kid who knows better and who is actually threatening other kids."
Friends and family members expressed outrage at the suspension on Facebook. Some pointed out that Caitlin's father serves in the Army, so she has grown up understanding the role that guns play.
While Caitlin's case stirred shock and alarm on social media, her suspension was not necessarily unusual. Schools across the nation have adopted similar zero-tolerance approaches to school discipline, policies that gained traction with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which called for specific responses to bringing weapons to school.
A number of similar cases have been reported in recent years of suspensions stemming from bringing fake - or seemingly innocent - weapons to school.
In May, a kindergarten student was suspended for bringing a toy bubble-blowing gun to a school in the Denver suburbs. In November, a South Florida middle school student was suspended for six days for using a child butter knife she had brought to school to cut a peach at lunchtime.
Other suspensions simply involved gestures and imaginary weapons. In 2013, a 7-year-old boy in Maryland was suspended for two days for chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun and saying, "Bang, bang."
After the incident, Miller even considered home-schooling her daughter. She wishes her children were "raised in a better time period when just being a kid was perfectly acceptable," she wrote on Facebook.
"I just want them to apologize to her and tell her it's okay," she said. "You can be five and have an imagination."
The Washington Post