In a Blackduck High School yearbook, more than 20 students posing for the trap shooting team photo are seen holding their shotguns on a snowy hill, each wearing a black shirt with a school logo.
So when one of the team’s best shooters, senior Antonia Long, posed for a senior portrait resting her gun across her shoulders as she leaned against a barn, she didn’t think it would be a problem getting that into the book, either.
Administrators weren’t so sure.
At the suggestion of the superintendent, Long took her request to the school board in Blackduck, a city of about 800 people northeast of Bemidji, which recently decided to allow her photo to be published. It also promised to come up with a new policy clarifying which photographs that include guns are OK to print in the keepsake annual.
It’s an issue more administrators and school boards around the state are grappling with as participation in trap shooting, now the seventh-most popular sport in Minnesota high schools, skyrockets.
“It’s tricky … I’m not sure anybody has a tried and true, right or wrong. There will always be people from either side of the aisle that are going to jump on it,” said Blackduck Superintendent Mark Lundin. “Typically guns and schools don’t mix. But yet, where a lot of people live in outstate Minnesota, that’s part of our daily lives with hunting and fishing.”
Nearly 12,000 students from more than 400 of the state’s approximately 500 schools participate on trap shooting teams, sport leaders said. It’s quick growth for a sport that started in schools in 2001.
“Even in the state of hockey, we are larger than boys’ and girls’ high school hockey combined,” said John Nelson, president of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League. “It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
High School League role
Long, who has been on Blackduck’s team since it started when she was in 7th grade, said the sport has helped her learn the importance of patience, diligence and hard work.
Team members compete virtually, shooting flying clay targets at local gun ranges and reporting their scores online. Boys and girls compete together and, in most cases, team sizes are unlimited.
As with robotics, badminton and synchronized swimming, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is a “presenting partner” to the activity, spokesman John Millea explained. It provides trophies and medals for state trap shooting tournaments, but during the season the competitions are governed by different groups.
Long, who won a state championship her sophomore year and last summer qualified individually for a National High School Trap Shooting competition in Michigan, said she loves competing even outside of school.
“I shoot on a team with my grandpa, so that’s fun,” Long said. “I can compete with people from all ages, all different kinds of backgrounds, and it’s just ... something that really brings the community together.”
But to some, a school sport involving guns seems inappropriate in an era of mass school shootings around the country.
Students aren’t allowed to bring guns onto school property, but many schools allow students to earn a letter for participating in trap shooting like other extracurricular activities.
So figuring out where to allow depictions of the guns used in the sport is a sensitive topic.
After the issue surfaced in Big Lake in 2017, school administrators established a policy excepting the trap shooting team from its no-weapons-in-the-yearbook rule, allowing for guns to be included in team pictures and any approved photos taken by yearbook staff. Senior portraits must be head shots, with no props allowed.
In Crookston, after a student submitted a yearbook portrait that displayed a gun, the school board decided last year that guns would be allowed in trap shooting team photos, but not in individual photos.
Hastings, which has the state’s largest trap shooting team, has long allowed photos of guns in senior portraits, as long as they’re done “in good taste,” said high school principal Mike Johnson. Some students have had photos taken with their hunting guns and dogs, he said.
“It’s their senior picture and if they have a personal interest, that’s fine. We don’t want the gun being pointed at anyone ... If this is to represent who you are and what your interests are ... we’ll work with you,” Johnson said. “It is a hard one because certainly with violence in our schools, I think ... each community does things differently.”
Gary Lee, deputy executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he and his staff have been fielding more calls about the issue the past few years. Their advice: Districts have to figure out what is appropriate in their communities.
“It really boils down to the school district making a choice on how their community would respond to it and the balance of being able to show the students’ interests vs. not promote violence,” Lee said. “In general, we’ll see that a weapon, which is used for the trap teams, may be in a team event and a team photo, but when it comes to senior pictures … generally the school district will say ‘no’ to that. ... They’ve got to look at their community and see what works best for their community.”
In Blackduck, superintendent Lundin said the board wanted more time to draw up a policy taking into account several scenarios.
In a senior portrait, for instance, a student holding a gun might be perceived differently if he or she were wearing a trap shooting uniform vs. street clothes, he said.
The high school posts senior portrait composites in hallways for years to come, Lundin said. He wondered how such photos might look to future generations, should perceptions change.
The board was also asked about photos of students who enjoy archery or other hobbies where weapons are used.
“There’s just so many twists to this,” he said.
The administration’s thinking on the issue has evolved over the years. Photos of the trap shooting team in its earlier years did not include guns, Lundin said.
Makes her case
At the district’s school board meeting in December, Long read aloud a letter that she wrote with the help of a teacher, she said.
“I realize the fear and concern people have about there being a firearm in the school’s yearbook, but I am here to tell you I am not the concern,” she wrote.
Cynthia Nord, chairwoman of the school board, said in an e-mail before the vote that several community members had called her insisting that the board allow the picture to be published in the annual.
“Trap shooting is a MSHSL-sanctioned activity, as any other sport,” Nord wrote. “In the past we have always allowed extracurricular equipment in senior pictures that are used in the yearbook. I believe to disallow Ms. Long to use the picture with her firearm used for trap shooting would not only be unfair but discrimination.”
Long said she’s glad she took her case to the board and hopes it will set policy for future students.
“It feels pretty good,” she said.