In the aftermath of the tragic mass shooting earlier this month in Parkland, Florida, and the questions it raises about gun control and school safety, Dart Wars—a Ridgewood tradition that dates back to 2007—has come under scrutiny from the RHS administration. Dart Wars, a months-long competition in which students form four-person teams and compete in elimination-style combat using Nerf guns, is scheduled to kick off its 2018 season next Monday.
This past Monday, RHS principal Dr. Thomas Gorman sent a letter to all parents recommending that they discourage their children from taking part in the event, which is not officially sanctioned by the school and does not take place on school grounds. “Because of the heightened awareness of shootings,” Gorman wrote, “we strongly urge students to not participate in ‘dart wars.’”
Despite Gorman’s letter, Dart Wars will be held as scheduled this year. Roscoe Swartz, RHS ’18, the commissioner of this year’s competition, responded to Gorman’s email on the event’s official Facebook page. The call to shut down Dart Wars, he wrote, “is absurd for many different reasons.” Swartz’s post went on to reiterate that rules are already in place prohibiting students from possessing Nerf guns on campus or altering them to look like real guns. The post ended with a note that “in order to avoid as much trouble with the school administration as possible,” violating either of these two rules will result in a permanent ban from this year’s Dart Wars—in past years, infractions carried one-week suspensions.
Gorman believes that regardless of the rules of the game or how strictly they are enforced, the event is a bad fit for the current climate. “In this day and age, it is not a sensible game to be playing,” he said, adding that he is not alone in his concerns— he has been approached by parents and even students who are uncomfortable with Dart Wars. And the issue isn’t exclusive to a post-Parkland world. “I get calls every year,” he said, “about kids hiding behind garbage cans. The actions of kids could be misconstrued.” In fact, they have been occasionally. Swartz says that over the years, weekend Dart Wars battles—which take place at other locations around the village, including the yards of elementary and middle schools—have attracted the attention of neighbors. The police have occasionally been called and students have been asked to relocate and play somewhere else.
Even though Dart Wars does not take place on RHS grounds and Gorman is unaware of any school disciplinary incidents resulting from the competition, he believes that the school has a role in regulating unsanctioned events involving students. In the past, activities such as scavenger hunts have caused problems. “There have been negative incidents that have occurred,” he said. “We had to get involved in some of those.”
The school’s jurisdiction in these matters is ambiguous. What is not in dispute is the popularity of Dart Wars. The event began as a way for students, especially seniors, to celebrate the waning of the school year. “Most seniors have already decided where they are going [to college],” Swartz said. “It’s a way to end the year on a high note.” Last year’s event drew more than 250 students, each of whom paid a $15 entry fee. The monies are divided up at the conclusion of the event’s playoffs, with the first-place team receiving 70 percent of the pool and the player responsible for the most eliminations receiving 15 percent. The remaining 15 percent is used to compensate the commissioner and pay for the upkeep of the Dart Wars website.
A final count is not yet available for this year’s player registration numbers, so it is difficult to know if Gorman’s appeal will have deterred participation. However, even Swartz agrees that the timing is not ideal. “It’s impossible to reschedule. It’s at the end of the year. It’s a springtime thing. Because it’s a sensitive time, I wish that it could be rescheduled until tensions die down around the gun control subject.” Swartz plans to set aside a portion of his commissioner’s pay and donate it to a cause concerned with school safety or a similar issue.
As teams gear up for day one of Dart Wars, the controversy has attracted wider attention. NorthJersey.com wrote about the issue Tuesday (“Ridgewood High School Opposes Annual Student Nerf Gun Game Called Dart Wars”); a Patch.com article followed (“Ridgewood School Officials Don’t Want Kids Playing Nerf Gun Game”); and students saw classmates being interviewed by a CBS-2 TV reporter outside the main entrance of RHS on Wednesday.
Graphics: Daniel Greenman