The gun came from a dollar store. It was a cheap plastic fake with a bright orange tip that Nakicha Gilbert’s 10-year-old son bought during a visit to a cousin’s house.

“It was a toy,” Gilbert said. “A toy.”

Her son had it in his backpack when he went to Alexandria’s Douglas MacArthur Elementary School on Feb. 4, and he took it out on a bus ride home, placing it in his front pants pocket. He showed one boy, who immediately recognized it was not real, according to his mother.

It is unclear how many other children noticed or talked about the toy gun, but one girl told her mother that the episode frightened her. The girl’s mother called the school immediately and e-mailed school officials that she was uncomfortable sending her children to school until she could be certain the 10-year-old was not armed.

Gilbert said she was told that the principal, that day, examined a video of the bus ride home and saw nothing alarming. But the next morning, the boy’s backpack was searched, the toy gun was found and school officials called police. The 10-year-old was taken into custody. He was not handcuffed, police said.

The case got wide notice Feb. 5 — on television, in newspapers, through social media — leaving Gilbert with the sense that many people thought her son had “a real gun in there and he was waving it around and ready to kill the whole school.”

That day, the 10-year-old stood in a small courtroom, answering questions about Miranda rights, accused of brandishing a weapon, his mother said. He was fingerprinted and photographed. He now has a probation officer, lawyers and another court date.

“This is how kids get caught up in the system,” his mother said.

Alexandria school officials defended the actions at the elementary school, saying they were following local policies and state laws. They said that they could not discuss the details of the student’s case for privacy reasons but that they are reviewing “aspects and actions” related to the incident and will make corrections as needed. The Washington Post generally does not identify juveniles unless they are charged as adults.

Gilbert said her son is an only child who plays football, basketball and lacrosse. The boy spends many hours at the Boys & Girls Club, where he was headed that day on the bus.

He had no idea he had done something wrong, the mother said. He did not try to scare anyone, she said, nor did he point the toy gun at others.

Tina Hone, founder of the Coalition of The Silence, a Northern Virginia organization that advocates for disadvantaged students on school issues, contends that the 10-year-old has been unfairly criminalized.

“How can you go from a toy gun to a criminal charge and a probation officer?” Hone asked. “This is such an over-the-top reaction.”

The Alexandria branch of the NAACP is investigating the handling of the case — the child is African American — and the group is “passionately concerned about the outcome,” said Jackie Surratt, chairman of the branch’s community coordination committee.

Rebecca Edwards, the mother who wrote the e-mail, said initially she was concerned about what her daughter had seen, but she now is troubled by the way the case unfolded. She said school officials failed to look into the matter thoroughly the afternoon it happened, then called police the next day to deal with a toy gun. “It’s such a bad handling of the situation, it was ridiculous,” Edwards said.

Gilbert said she still has not been given a clear picture of why police were called and why her son was taken into custody and disciplined. He was suspended 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion.

Gilbert said school officials have said a video recording made inside the bus showed no flashing of the toy gun or alarmed reactions from other students, though at one point it appears a group of students is looking at something.

“I understand all the school shooting stuff, but that’s why I say, ‘There needs to be a protocol,’ ” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said her son’s school suspension was cut short after a school hearing determined that his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder was a factor in his case. He missed six days of instruction, she said, and attends a different school at the family’s request.

Police say that they were called to the school by administrators and that they always prefer to respond immediately to potential threats. “If we were able to investigate right away, the outcome might have been different,” said Jody Donaldson, an Alexandria police spokesman.