During recess, Caitlin Miller and two of her friends were playing make-believe where one friend pretended to be the queen, another was the princess and Caitlin was their protector. When the 5-year-old saw a stick shaped like a gun on the ground, she picked it up and started using it to shoot intruders.
To school administrators at McLauchlin Elementary School in North Carolina, when Catilin made a shooting motion, it posed a threat to other students and violated school policy. She was suspended for one day.
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"We know why it's bad," Caitlin's mom, Brandy Miller, told WTVD. "We watch the news, but then I have to tell my kid, 'You're not allowed to play like that in school because people do bad things to kids your age.'"
Miller is angry about how the situation was handled and said school officials didn't even explain to Caitlin why she was suspended.
"She feels like all the teachers hate her. I can't imagine being 5 and feeling that way," Miller writes on Facebook. "One minute, she's running around playing with her friends, and the next minute, her teacher is snatching her up and dragging her to the office to get suspended. She was so scared and confused. Caitlin is a handful, but I feel like this was way blown out of proportion."
In a statement, the Hoke County school system defended its zero-tolerance policy and said it would "not tolerate assaults, threats or harassment from any student" and that "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."
Since the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which was enacted in response to increasing levels of gun violence in schools, zero-tolerance policies have been adopted by schools nationwide. When every day, an average of 48 children and teens get shot, it's understandable for guardians to be on high alert. Some parents even ban gun play completely, questioning why American culture continues to romanticize weapons.
But for parents like Miller, her daughter was just exercising her imagination.
"What the hell happened to days when little kids could play like that? Don't they still make Nerf guns and water guns that kids shoot each other with? Don't kids still play paintball and laser tag?" she writes. "I can see a suspension for an older kid who knows better and who is actually threatening other kids. Who the hell felt so threatened by a 5-year-old girl that they thought she needed to be suspended?"