The road was clear and drugs or alcohol weren’t a factor last week when a pickup truck carrying four Lakeville South High School students veered into another lane, corrected and rolled two or three times, killing two of them.
But Friday, Dakota County sheriff’s officials confirmed that a “Nerf wars” game did play a role in the crash that killed Johnny Price, 18, and Jake Flynn, 17, and injured Mason Kohlbeck, 17, and driver Alexander Hughes, 17, who is still in critical condition.
“It drew the kids together to get in the vehicle to participate in the game,” Sheriff Tim Leslie said.
The game, in which students use the foam-bullet-shooting guns to capture or “kill” fellow students, has drawn scrutiny since the Dec. 4 after-school crash on W. 225th Street south of Lakeville. Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Rogers said investigators found Nerf guns in the vehicle.
Leslie and State Patrol spokeswoman Tiffani Schweigart said evidence pointed to only one of the students wearing a seat belt. Leslie said investigators haven’t been able to determine whether it was a case of distracted driving and haven’t been able to talk to Hughes yet.
“He’s in charge of the vehicle. He can shed some light on things that happened that day,” Leslie said. “I think it’s only fair we at least give that opportunity to the driver.”
Schweigart said investigators are only a week into what can be a two- to four-month process of reconstructing the crash and analyzing statements and other evidence, like the vehicle’s “black box,” which can record data when air bags are deployed.
“Ultimately, our goal is to answer the question of why this crash occurred,” Schweigart said, “which is much more complicated than answering the question of how it occurred.”
Lakeville school Superintendent Lisa Snyder said Friday that hearing of “Nerf wars,” and its prevalence in metro schools and elsewhere, was a learning process for educators.
“My hope is that all of us talk to our children and just make sure what they’re playing and how they’re choosing to have fun is safe,” Snyder said. “Certainly, playing with Nerf guns with your friends might have its place but … when you’re having cars involved with that, that brings it to a whole different level.”
Rogers also dispelled rumors that anyone was riding in the bed of the truck at the time of the crash. Flynn and Price were both thrown from the vehicle, and Kohlbeck was found walking around at the scene in a daze. Kohlbeck was released from the hospital soon after the crash and returned to school on Monday.
Snyder said “Nerf wars” is not played during the school day but called news that the four students began the game in the parking lot “a gray area.” At this time, she said, there haven’t been discussions of banning the game.
“From what I understand, students have decided to pretty much permanently shut down any sort of games in Lakeville,” Snyder said. “So it might just take care of itself.”