No criminal charges will be filed in connection with the deaths of two Lakeville students who died late last year in a car crash while playing Nerf wars.
“While no criminal charges are being filed in this case, I hope that all youth take notice of how quickly tragedy can occur while operating a motor vehicle,” said Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom after announcing his decision Friday.
“Games such as ‘Nerf war’ have no place in a moving motor vehicle as they can lead to distractions to or interference with the driver with deadly consequences as occurred in this preventable incident,” he said. “In fact, these types of games, which can involve aggressive behaviors among youth, have no place in our schools and communities and should end.”
Lakeville South High School students Jacob Flynn, 17, and John Price, 18, were killed Dec. 4 after the driver of the vehicle apparently veered off course and overcorrected. A witness said the vehicle rolled three to four times and the two teens were ejected. The 17-year-old driver was seriously injured. An 18-year-old student, who was the only one wearing a seat belt, suffered minor injuries.
Nerf wars, a game played by high school students for years, is often banned from school grounds. In the game, students can be “kidnapped” and taken to locations where they are shot with a Nerf bullet. Players in the game “shoot” their opponents with the spongy projectiles in an effort to rack up points and ultimately win a pot of money.
All four students in the truck were willing participants in the game, according to Backstrom. Flynn got in the truck when he was surrounded by the three other teens who were on an opposing team. For a time, the driver was the only one in the front seat while the other three teens were in the back seat.
About 30 seconds before the crash, Price jumped from the back seat to the front, according to the investigation. Flynn, who was still in the back seat, may have leaned forward to avoid being shot with the Nerf gun or may have tried to gain possession of it, according to the teen who suffered minor injuries.
In that time, the driver may have been nudged by one of those two teens and the truck veered off course. When the driver overcorrected, the truck rolled.
Investigators said the truck had been traveling at or near the posted speed limit. Two photographs found on the driver’s cellphone were taken around the time of the crash, according to the investigation. But the images are too blurry to determine what was photographed. The surviving passenger from the crash told investigators that the driver had both hands on the wheel when he left his lane of traffic. Investigators said it couldn’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt who had possession of the phone at the time of the crash.
Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie echoed Backstrom’s warning that innocent games like Nerf wars can have deadly consequences and also sent out a plea for people to use seat belts.
“Schools, law enforcement and parents should do all they can to prevent these types of games which can lead to aggressive behaviors by the youth involved, and the students involved should step up and agree not to participate in these type of activities,” Leslie said.
Lakeville schools superintendent Lisa Snyder said the deaths of the two teens has deeply affected the community as well as friends and families. After the crash, students voluntarily decided to discontinue playing Nerf wars. “And to our knowledge, they have not resumed playing it,” she said.
Earlier this year, other metro school districts sent out warnings to students and parents about the hazards of playing the game.
Prior Lake High School Principal Dave Lund sent an e-mail to families earlier this year that a Nerf war was being launched and encouraged parents to talk to their kids about making good choices. “Nerf wars can become dangerous when students get into vehicles and forget to buckle up, or don’t obey traffic laws in an effort to win the game,” the note said.
At St. Paul Central High School, principal Mary Mackbee sent a note to parents in March outlining some of the game’s dangers.
“We can warn parents to make sure their kids are safe and don’t let them get into a situation where they might get arrested or get hurt,” she said. “If they’re OK with their kids doing this, they need to understand there might be serious consequences.”