High school officials warn popular toy gun game could turn dangerous

CINCINNATI -- High school seniors across the Tri-State are in the trenches of a popular toy-gun game that many consider a rite-of-passage before graduation.

But in an age of heightened security threats, school and police officials are warning students that the fun-intended game could turn dangerous fast.  

The game is commonly called “assassin,” “killer,” or “Nerf wars,” and it has been played for years at schools across the nation every spring. Rules vary, but the game generally involves students stalking or shooting human targets with Nerf darts or water guns until only one remains.  Some schools use a bracket system and then the winning team claims a cash prize.

“It’s kind of a fun last hoorah because at the end of the year, you’re kind of stressed out with AP testing, and you’re going away to college,” said Kendall Harden, a Mariemont High School senior who helped organized the unsanctioned game at her school.

It’s a way to blow off steam for most students and a decades-old tradition passed down to the senior class.

But in a central Wisconsin city Tuesday night, the fun game turned nearly-deadly serious.

“A caller drove by and said they saw a person pointing a firearm at somebody inside another vehicle,” said Cpt. Ben Bilven at the Warsau Police Department.

Officers blocked off the road, spoke over their loud speakers and pointed their guns at the vehicle—only to find six high school students playing with Nerf guns. The students were issued disorderly conduct citations.

“If this game happened 30 years ago, it would not be perceived the same, but we live in a society where firearm violence is a reality and it’s not terribly uncommon,” said Belvin.

The games are usually not school-sanctioned and most schools prohibit the toy-guns on school grounds. That means most of the 'shoot outs” happen in cars, business parking lots and in neighborhood yards.

Elgin Card, principal at Lakota West High School, sent parents an e-mail this year to notify them that the game was about to start.

“We have great kids at Lakota West. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when great kids sometimes make bad decisions,” he wrote.

Card said he worries that students could get into an accident while playing the game—something he says has happened in the school district before.

“Kids are chasing each other in cars and trying to shoot each other. They’re going to businesses, waiting for kids to get out of work and leaving stores,” he said. “Any time we have kids at a high rate of speed in cars and not paying attention to the road, that’s an issue for me.”

He also warned of the problems that could arise when students carry toy guns that look real.

“With a heightened awareness on gun violence, having students out in our community with items that even look like real weapons could have dangerous consequences,” he wrote. 

Kathy Cook, a mother of a Lakota West senior who is playing the game right now, said she supports her son’s decision to play. 

"Even my husband played it 30 years ago," she said. "I think it brings a lot of different kids together. Kids get to know each other who they didn't know. I have not heard of anyone taking it overly serious this year."

Libby Willms said she let her daughter Whitney play the game at Lakota West last year, but thinks some of the game rules have gone too far -- one of which two years ago that naked students could not be targeted.

"You're immune if you're nude. So, you will ambush somebody while you're naked and if they shoot you, you aren't out of the game," Willms said. "Because it's happening in public places and their little brothers and sisters could be around, that [rule] just takes it further than it needs to go." 

Brian Rebholz, captain at the West Chester Township Police Department said his officers have not encountered any problems with this year's game at Lakota West so far. But officers are still alert to the potential issues that could arise. 

"Obviously, there are concerns. We don't want these kids shooting from cars and these kind of things. We want them to be safe," Rebholz said. "When it's dark and you've got kids running between houses, someone in the community might not know what's going on." 

Harden, who is still overseeing the game at her Mariemont Highl, said she's cracking down on participants who don't follow the rules.

"We have really strict rules on cars and stuff. The driver is not allowed to shoot. Your passenger can shoot out of the car, but nobody is allowed to shoot at a moving car," she said.

Some schools across the country have warned they'll take extreme measures if they catch a student playing the game on school grounds--suspension, banning a student from prom, athletics and even graduation. 

Lakota West's Card said his school hasn't laid out a specific disciplinary plan, but he plans to address each problem on a case-by-case basis. 

"The kids know it cannot happen at school. If it does, they deal with me," he said. 

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