High school Nerf wars were long considered just fun and games until two Lakeville students died in a car crash late last year.

The tragedy has some students retreating and school officials reminding young people that some of the gamesmanship of “stalking” and “killing” players with toy guns has real risks — from crashes to naked photos of students being posted on social media.

“These games have been going on for 20 years or so,” said St. Paul Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee. “It gets a little more risky every year.”

Last year, students imposed the “naked rule” that allowed them to be “invincible” from the foam bullets if they removed their clothes, Mackbee said. But it leaves them vulnerable if someone posts a naked photo on social media, she said. “That’s something that won’t go away. … It’s supposed to be a game but there could be some serious consequences.”

The goal is to be the last team or player standing, reaping a cash prize that can amount to hundreds of dollars from kids anteing up to play. Most schools ban the game, which can last for weeks, from campuses, and teen organizers of games often ban it from churches, restaurants and places of work. But players in pursuit sometimes engage in risky behavior in search of a high-stakes prize or merely bragging rights.

In December, Dakota County officials said a Nerf wars game played a role in a crash that killed two of four Lakeville teens in a pickup truck that veered into another lane, corrected and rolled two or three times. Only one student was wearing a seat belt.

Amy Olson, a spokeswoman for Lakeville schools, said “to the best of our knowledge,” Lakeville high school students have since decided to stop Nerf wars in their city.

School officials in other districts have cited the tragedy in warnings to parents and students. Prior Lake High School Principal Dave Lund sent an e-mail to families last week 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.

Kristi Mussman, spokeswoman for the district, said some students decided not to play this year because of the Lakeville accident. “But I don’t think the game has been canceled,” she said.

“I know that it’s not a great idea, and from the stories I’ve heard, there’s a lot of speeding,” said Prior Lake High School senior Beth Borchardt. “I really want them to stop because it’s dangerous.”

Hogan Underhill, who graduated from Prior Lake High School in 2014, said he helped launch Nerf wars there when he was a junior. He said his brothers are carrying on the game’s traditions this year. “What happened in Lakeville was tragic,” he said.

There aren’t any rules about driving while playing the game, he said. “But you have to use common sense,” Underhill said. “You can’t be reckless. You can drown in a swimming pool and they’re not going to cancel pools from being used. I don’t think Nerf wars is a dangerous game by any means.”

Mackbee said the game would be harmless if students turned it into a one-day competition at a farm. But that’s not how the game is played. “They’re coming to homes, being on roof tops, hiding behind bushes, scaring the bejeezus out of people,” she said.

“Honestly, a lot of the parents don’t want to tell their kids ‘no,’ ” Mackbee said. So, she took on the role as the heavy and sent families a note outlining some of the game’s dangers after representatives from the Ramsey County attorney’s office met with Central’s Parent Advisory Committee last week.

“There have been reports of students using cars to block other students, students jumping on top of moving cars, tires being slashed and cars colliding,” Mackbee wrote. “There was even a reported bumping between two cars at high speed on the highway. These activities are both illegal and extremely dangerous. There have been a number of situations where students are entering houses and garages and crawling on roofs without permission, often after dark. One homeowner with a gun acting in self-defense would create a tragedy.”

Mackbee and other school officials wield little control over the game that’s played off school grounds. “But 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.”

 

Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.