A Tacoma elementary-school teaching assistant who served preschoolers dog food during a play-acting exercise this week has been placed on paid administrative leave.

The preschoolers were part of an early-education class at Northeast Tacoma Elementary School, where they had been moving between "learning goal stations" around the room Monday afternoon, said Tacoma School District spokeswoman Patti Holmgren.

A family-service worker, who usually supervises the class, had stepped out of the room and left a teaching assistant in charge, Holmgren said.

When a few of the students pretended to be puppies, getting down on their hands and knees and barking, the assistant attempted to encourage their playacting by fetching "props" from next door: a packet of dry dog food and some sunflower seeds that she poured on paper plates and placed on the floor, Holmgren said.

Some of the students ate the sunflower seeds, and a few allegedly nibbled on the kibble although the district maintains they spit out the dog food and that no one suffered any ill effects.

The dog food had come from a display intended to teach the preschoolers "what not to eat," Holmgren said.

School principal Pat Flores learned about the incident Tuesday after a parent complained. In a letter sent to parents Wednesday, Flores called the event "unfortunate" and said the district was investigating.

The assistant, newly hired, is on paid administrative leave until the investigation wraps up, probably within the next week, Holmgren said.

Brenda Dattilo, whose 4-year-old daughter is in the class, said she was appalled by the incident. "It's completely inappropriate and inexcusable," she said.

While she appreciates encouraging child development through imaginary play, "I don't see any educational value in running around acting like dogs, eating dog food off paper plates on the floor," Dattilo said.

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