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Fla. school scrutinized over Hunger Games-themed summer camp

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At Country Day Camp, kids got to participate in "The Hunger Games" -- sort of.  (Country Day School) At Country Day Camp, kids got to participate in "The Hunger Games" -- sort of. (Country Day School)
LARGO, Fla. -

Summer camp is traditionally a place where kids get together, run around, swim, play games, maybe ride horses. And then there's one particular camp that's taken the games-playing to a new level.

A Largo, Fla., Country Day School summer camp has been running a "Hunger Games" themed tournament, where 26 participants are expected to fight one another to the "death," as the young people in the fictional "Hunger Games" books and movies do.

In a piece reported by the Tampa Bay Times, the adolescents don't really fight to the death -- it's all playacting. But the way the kids take on their roles means they end up telling each other things like, "I will probably kill you first" and "I might stab you."

The children "kill" one another by pulling flag belts from their enemies' waists, and the camper with the most "lives" when the tournament ends wins.

But the staff at Country Day School has received worldwide attention for choosing a "Hunger Games" theme for its program that ended last week.

"Real-Life Hunger Games Camp Where Children Expect to Fight Each Other to the Death Exists" was the title Vanity Fair used for its website report of it. Other sites like The UK Daily Mail have also written versions of what happened.

"Everybody -- when they hear Hunger Games -- they think death, fighting, children ... stuff like that," said 12 year-old Alyssa Stewart. "That was not the case at all for the camp. The camp was mainly team-building and trust."

The story in the Tampa Bay Times quoted clinical psychologist Susan Toler as saying the camp idea was "unthinkable," noting that "when [children] start thinking and owning and adopting and assuming [those killer] roles, it becomes close to them. The violence becomes less egregious."

In a statement posted to its blog, Country Day School denied that it encouraged violence.

"Country Day School always prioritizes the emotional and physical safety of our students," the school wrote. "As we purposefully promote peace and kindness with all of our students, it is unthinkable that Country Day School would ever support or encourage violence."

The school also explained its decision to offer a "Hunger Games" camp: "After careful consideration, we decided to offer a camp for middle school students centered on 'The Hunger Games' in response to adolescent interest in the popular book trilogy.

"Our decision was predicated on the development of a curriculum that replaced any subjects of violence with positive themes of character development and team building."

"I think the point of the camp was teamwork and learning how to survive with a partner," agreed 12-year-old camper Rylee Miller. "The Hunger Games is pretty dark in the books, but we're trying to put it in a teamwork-like way."

Rylee's mother, Kelly Miller, said she was 'perfectly fine' with the theme.

"You have cowboys and Indians back in the day," she said. "You've got Star Wars ... you have Harry Potter. Now you have Hunger Games. There's going to be another one. There will always be another one."

She, however, did say camps should err on the side of caution.

"I think you really have to know the administration and the school that's going to provide that camp and you have to trust and understand the expectations," Miller said.

The Tampa Bay Times' response to the camp's stance indicates they are standing by their story.

A statement the paper gave to NBC News reads: "Our reporter spent 20 hours over three days observing the camp. We published a fair and accurate story about what we saw, noting several times that camp leaders tried to steer the children away from violent themes."

The Tampa Bay Times article ended, however, by showing that the camp was far from violence-free. One 11-year-old noted that he was "stepped on."

"I'm sure it was an accident," said camp director Jared D'Alessio.

The boy begged to differ, saying he'd been knocked down.

"I got stepped on," he said.

Country Day School denied the incident.

"This misrepresentation and the suggestion that a child was hurt while in our care could not be further from the truth," the school wrote on its blog.

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