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Foam feud: Northland students' Nerf Wars are fun, but some are concerned about safety

Mark Holliday, 17, of Duluth shoots his Nerf gun at Alex Legarde, a suspected player in one of the Nerf Wars organized by students at several local high schools, in the parking lot of Holy Rosary School in Duluth on Thursday. (Clint Austin / / 6
Brandt Pilon, 17, of Duluth demonstrates how to load a Nerf gun. (Clint Austin / / 6
Brendan Peterson, 16, of Duluth holds Nerf ammunition in his hand. Since local teenagers began the Nerf Wars, Peterson said, “it is impossible to find Nerf ammunition since this started; all of the store shelves are bare.” (Clint Austin / / 6
Brendan Peterson, 16, Mark Holliday, 17, and Madeline Dusek, 17, all of Duluth, shoot Nerf toy guns while participating in the Duluth East Nerf War in the parking lot of Holy Rosary School in Duluth on Thursday evening. (Clint Austin / / 6
Brendan Peterson, 16, of Duluth takes a selfie with Alex Legarde after shooting him with a Nerf gun while participating in the Duluth East Nerf War in the parking lot of Holy Rosary School in Duluth on Thursday evening. Legarde acted like he was not playing the game and other players didn't believe him, because that's a tactic to avoid getting targeted. After taking the photo Peterson checked the roster and found that Legarde was in fact not playing the game. (Clint Austin / / 6
Unidentified students flash Nerf guns while driving past the parking lot of Holy Rosary School in Duluth on Thursday evening. Students that are participating in the Duluth East Nerf War will often drive past and display their Nerf guns to lure other students into a battle. (Clint Austin / / 6

Stray foam darts, cars gathered at closed venues at night and kids chasing each other through parking lots, yards and woods with neon-colored toy guns are frequent sights in recent days.

More than 1,000 high school students in the Twin Ports are immersed in a strategic game that involves shooting foam darts at opposing players to ultimately win a pot of money. The game — Nerf Wars — isn’t new, and it isn’t sanctioned by any of the schools. But the trend, spread quickly via Twitter, has exploded among kids who attend area high schools, engaging students in Duluth, Hermantown, Superior, Cloquet and Esko.

 Players say the game is fun and gets them outside after a long winter. Authority figures agree with that sentiment but worry about its potential and realized dangers. The game organized by Superior High School students, for example, already has been canceled partly because of concerns for safety and possible school activity code violations, according to its Twitter account.

Superior activities director and assistant principal Ray Kosey recently sent a letter home to parents of students subject to the school’s code of conduct after he heard stories about the game — and its repercussions — from people in other towns.

“What they thought was a nice, friendly game was turning into trespassing and breaking laws,” he said.

Concerns include risky driving, entering homes without permission, Nerf guns painted to look like actual weapons and panic about activity from those unaware of the game.

‘Think about safety’

Each group has a set of rules posted to its Twitter account, and although most are the same and either ban or caution against most risky behavior, some don’t. Most groups, such as those for students playing on the Duluth Denfeld, East and Hermantown teams, have a rule saying students can’t enter a house without permission. Tagging someone after breaking this rule won’t count toward a team’s goal to win the game. But Duluth Marshall’s rules, for example, don’t distinguish, and Cloquet rules allow it.

Maxx Brenner, a senior at Cloquet Senior High School and organizer of the game for that school, said the move is “frowned upon.”

“If you get into trouble with police, it’s your fault,” he said. “You chose to go there.”

Cloquet police detective Derek Randall is also the school resource officer for the high school. He used the Cloquet Nerf Wars Twitter account to spread a message about being responsible during the game. Students should know, he said, that shooting from a moving vehicle is illegal, as well as entering a home without permission. These things can be mistaken as home invasions, and guns could be drawn either by police or homeowners, he said.

The East group specified against entering homes without permission because of that possibility.

“There are a lot of gun carriers in Duluth,” said East junior and game organizer Kyle Chmielecki. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt or the cops called.”

 Another concern is painted guns, which can create an unwanted response from police, Randall said.

“If someone is specifically trying to disguise a toy gun as a real gun, it only makes those split-second decisions harder for the officers,” he said.

Duluth students also report a few minor car accidents since they started playing. Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the game could be made safer by adding a rule about the use of cars.

“It’s great to see kids organize and run events,” he said, “but at the same time I have concerns about their safety and hope they will think about safety.”

Kosey, too, said he applauded students for coming up with a healthy activity that didn’t involve drugs and alcohol, and said it could work in a controlled environment. But he worried about students, who are inexperienced drivers, “chasing” each other or being followed.

“They have enough distractions behind the wheel, as it is,” he said.

Denfeld students are emphasizing safety over winning, Denfeld senior Ryan Ozan said.

“As long as kids stay safe, it’s a good way to keep the school having fun and staying together,” he said.

School grounds are off limits until evening for most organized games, and entirely for some, along with several other sites. Only Nerf guns are allowed, and some ban painted guns.

Both Randall and Jim Hansen, public information officer for the Duluth Police Department, said complaints so far have been few, but the games will be monitored.

“Our concerns would be over the potential for disturbance complaints and accidents because of kids getting caught up in the excitement of trying to get someone,” Hansen said. “So far, so good, but you can see the potential for problems.”

Some students are aware that the language of the game has serious implications at school. One tweet on the East account reads: “If you are talking about ‘shooting’ someone at school, call it ‘nerfing’ because teachers have to report it.”

East administration recently announced to students over the public address system to leave Nerf guns at home and be careful when playing.

‘I give them credit’

Some groups are planning to donate all or part of the winnings to various charities, including students in Cloquet and Hermantown. Cloquet students also plan to donate their Nerf guns.

“We have 250 players,” said Brenner, of the Cloquet team, which will donate $200 to a mentoring program. With that many people, “we figured we should do something good with it.”

Cloquet students have so far been respectful, high school principal Warren Peterson said.

“I give them credit for doing something other than sitting at home in front of a video game,” he said. “They are outside, running through swamps and playing in parks.”

It’s just one more thing, Ozan said, that freshmen through seniors can enjoy together at the end of the year.

“Everyone seems to have a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

Students from various schools say there is no end date. The games could continue through the summer, until one team remains within each school group.

“People are tired of being inside. They want to get out with their friends and enjoy the nice weather. It brings people closer together,” Chmielecki said, laughing, “shooting each other with Nerf darts.”

Nerf Wars primer

Students split up into teams of three to six and choose a name. Some of the most creative among area schools include “Had Enerf,” “My Dart Will Go On” and “Zero Dart Thirty.”

Teams play against others within their own school, each contributing about $20 to a pot. The total at East, for example, is about $2,000 because more than 400 students are playing. Participation between Cloquet and Esko is roughly 250 students, with about 70 students from Marshall and 150 from Denfeld. Roughly 200 Superior students were playing.

The last team or person standing wins the money. Eliminated players are able to pay their way back in to the game, however, increasing the pot.

If players are eliminated, their picture is taken with the person who tagged them, and it’s posted to the Twitter account for their particular group. Several students moderate the games and Twitter accounts.

Nerf Wars involve a level of “sneakiness,” Duluth East junior and game organizer Kyle Chmielecki said.

Since it began, friends are hesitant to accept invitations to hang out, unsure of whether it’s a trap, he said. It all adds to the fun of the game, he said, noting, you could show up at the Incline Station, for example, step out of your car, and “have foam flying at you.”