Alex Evans, 7, was playing a game of make-believe he dubbed "rescue the world," when he tossed an imaginary grenade at an imaginary box on the playground at his Loveland, Colorado school.
He was immediately suspended.
"I pretended the box — there's something shaking in it and I go pshhh," Alex tells KTRK, confused by his suspension. "So nothing can get out and destroy the world."
"I just can't believe I got dispended," he adds, mispronouncing the sentence for his imaginary crime.
Even though he didn't throw a physical object or make threats against anyone, officials at Mary Blair Elementary School insisted on acting upon its zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons and violence, interpreting it to include imaginary grenades.
Weapons -- real or imaginary -- are against school rules that were shared with parents at the beginning of the year. A third violation of school rules requires a formal suspension.
"He is very confused," Alex's mother, Mandie Watkins, tells the Reporter-Herald on Tuesday. "I'm confused as well, so it makes it hard for me to enforce these rules when I don't even understand them."
According to the Reporter-Herald, "Watkins said her son has been in trouble one other time at the school, for accessing other students' reading accounts on the computer, but she has not been informed of him making threats or acting violent."
However, the school has refuted Watkins' claim that the imaginary grenade was the reason for the suspension.
"He was not suspended for having an imaginary weapon," Thompson School District spokesman Mike Hausmann tells the paper. "The district itself has never expelled or suspended a student for having an imaginary weapon."
"This is a much more complicated issue than has been portrayed," Hausmann says, not further revealing the details or motives behind the decision.
Superintendent Stan Scheer tells the paper that while Thompson School District policy doesn't include a ban on imaginary weapons, individual schools can add to the general student code of conduct.
Watkins accuses the school of having changed its tune, now accusing her son of throwing rocks and not just an imaginary weapon. She also says the rules are too confusing for young children.
"They need to have rules that are clear-cut, easy to understand and realistic for this age group," Watkins says.
The story of Alex's suspension quickly went viral, with parents across the country weighing in online and through heated phone calls to the school. The threats and verbal lashings got bad enough to cause the school to take down its website.
"Overwhelmingly, the majority of feedback we're getting is from people who do not live in this district and do not even live in this state," Hausmann tells the Reporter-Herald. "It's not people from the community by and large."
Nancy Rumfelt of Liberty Watch accuses the school of mishandling the issue.
"I think the district would do themselves a huge favour if they would simply state the truth of what happened and admit they mishandled it: 'Here's what we did wrong, and here's how we can move forward,'" she says "But instead, they just seem to be digging their hole deeper."
Rumfelt tells Denver Westword that she feels the suspension has focused attention on "what's wrong with zero-tolerance policies."
"They don't allow kids to be kids, and they make it difficult for teachers. They're supposed to be encouraging kids to do critical thinking, to use their imagination, to learn how to be creative and innovative. But then you have these policies that really run counter to that."
Rumfelt is currently petitioning for greater transparency by the Thompson School District and for the board to review its "absolutes" list which, she claims, punishes imagination and creativity.
Amy Graff writes for the SFGate's The Mommy Files:
"This isn’t the first time an elementary school has harshly punished a student for playing with an imaginary weapon. More of these stories are popping up in the media as schools react to the tragic Newtown shootings, questioning policies, tightening rules and asking how they can prevent similar situations from happening on their grounds."
Last month in Maryland, two 6-year-olds were suspended from White Marsh Elementary School or playing cops and robbers at recess and using their fingers as imaginary guns.
Yet some child psychologists argue that gun play is healthy for young boys.
"Since the beginning of recorded time, little boys have enjoyed games in which they project their power into the world, and that means playing with 'weapons,'" says Michael Thompson, coauthor of Raising Cane: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. "I have no doubt that ‘cave’ boys pointed sticks at each other in threatening ways, or chucked rocks at one another, or imitated the spear-throwing actions of their fathers."
As for Watkins, she now plans to remove both her children from the school.
Where should schools draw the line when it comes to violence and the world of make-believe?