By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BLUE ASH - Dressed in camouflage, their skin smeared with dark paint, the young warriors lie in wait in bushes for hours before dawn to ambush an opponent leaving for school.
Blue Ash Police Officer Michael Bray checks out a homemade soft-dart gun at police headquarters. On the table are confiscated homemade and commercially produced Nerf dart guns and two-way radios.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG
With an eye on a $1,600 prize for the last team standing, they track one another at work, baseball games, even church youth gatherings, looking for a "kill."
They hire informants to spy, and friends and siblings are paid to set up adversaries for ambushes. They chase one another in cars. Both boys and girls run through their neighborhoods stripped down to mere thongs, invoking a rule that renders them "invisible" to their enemy.
Their feats in "Dart Wars" are the stuff of legend among Sycamore High School students. The six-week rite of spring using Nerf dart guns as weapons has been going on for almost a decade, and students look forward to what they describe as harmless, challenging fun.
Nerf guns use springs to compress air and shoot shoot soft foam darts or balls.
School officials and police would like to see Dart Wars disappear. The elaborate Rambo-style game of tag has become so popular that it dominates the lives of about 200 student players and is the daily talk of the school, starting the day after spring break ends.
Sycamore administrators say Dart Wars is too disruptive.
Blue Ash police say it's too dangerous.
Since this year's game started April 12, officers have drawn their guns on a student and threatened others with criminal charges. They worry about a player being shot by a scared homeowner or that a real criminal will be overlooked as a dart-game player.
"Quite frankly, if I was in high school, it looks like something that would be pretty much fun," said Lt. Dennis Boone, who is commander of the city's road patrol. "It would look harmless until you think in this day and age, with all the crazy things going on right now, the timing is probably just not really good for this."
Andrew Shaver is a Rum Runner. The 17-year-old junior and four teammates fashion themselves as hard-core warriors who take Dart Wars seriously.
This year and last, Andrew carried an automatic Nerf gun with a "power clip" capable of holding 10 darts. He dressed in camo and painted his face.
"I've always liked watching Rambo movies, and I just like military stuff ... going out with face paint like the Marines," Andrew said.
Blue Ash police investigated a complaint that Andrew and a teammate shot from a driveway at an opponent in a garage on Woodlands Way. A concerned neighbor driving by at 7:15 a.m. called police. Officers threatened to charge the three teens with inducing panic. Parents and their sons spent two hours at the station meeting with a sergeant and promised that their sons were out of the game.
"They said they weren't trying to single us out, but it was obvious that they were," Andrew said. He was later disqualified when he was found with a dart gun on school grounds.
Andrew's mother, Ginger Shaver, said officers have legitimate concerns. But she thinks that the response by Blue Ash police is too harsh. Andrew is her third and last child playing the game since 1998.
"The kids are involved in what's considered a legal pastime in terms that it is an elaborate game of tag," she said. "I obviously don't feel it's anything to get really worked up about."
Shaver thinks that if more was done to publicize the annual competition, residents wouldn't overreact and call police needlessly.
So far this spring, Blue Ash police have confiscated about 15 Nerf guns and PVC pipes fashioned into blowguns, as well as a pair of walkie-talkies.
Three days into the competition, Blue Ash officers pulled guns on a student in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Timbers Drive. They had received a report at 6:36 a.m. of a male in fatigues crouched by a silver Firebird. The resident told police that the man was "possibly holding a rifle."
Chief Chris Wallace said the department "pretty much has a zero-tolerance policy" for Dart Wars. Boone said his officers have been told since the beginning that they have discretion to file charges against Dart Wars players if they think the incident warrants it. They also are cautioned never to let their guard down on any run. So, they are justified in pulling their pistols.
"We see our share of crazy stuff - people with guns and people who are nuts - and they leave it to us in a split second to decide who is crazy, what is a real gun and who is a high school kid with a fake gun playing Dart Wars in the dark wearing camo," Boone said.
However, police in Montgomery - where the high school is located and many of the kids live - don't confiscate dart guns and don't interfere unless players commit a crime, Chief Kirk Nordbloom said.
"Don't think for a minute we aren't concerned about this," he said. "But, our stance is, if you abide by the law, you won't have a problem with it. Play your game. But, if you break the law, you pay the price."
Police in both communities say they have responded to Dart Wars incidents for years involving trespassing, suspicious activity, car wrecks, lawn jobs and reports of teens running naked through yards shooting each other.
Cash and a thrill
For players, Dart Wars offers the chance to turn an $8 entry fee into $200 or more. But the jackpot isn't the only draw.
"If you win Dart Wars, you can brag about that for years," said Matt McKeown, an 18-year-old senior who is one of this year's organizers. "I don't know how to explain it. We still sit down and talk about stories from sophomore year. It's just so much fun. I love it. I love it."
Versions of Dart Wars have been waged by students at other high schools through the years. Norwood played it briefly in 1985, and a mini-game surfaced last year among Loveland high-schoolers.
But, no one, apparently, does it as Sycamore does. The game started nine or more years ago as an invitation-only competition with 40 to 50 players.
Rules - from the type of weapons and darts permitted to infractions that call for disqualification - were added in 1998 in an effort to keep the game organized as more male and female students joined in and more money was pumped into the kitty.
This year, girls make up a quarter of the teams, and a couple of teams are coed. A five-player team pays $40 to get into the game, pushing the jackpot this spring to $1,600 for the winning team. Winners stand to take home $200 or more apiece after some money is given to a charity and judges are paid to offset expenses.
Parents have mixed feelings about the game. They see some benefits, but worry, especially when their kids are out in a car.
Pat Linhardt has warned his closest neighbors that his son, Kyle, is involved in the game. He's cautioned Kyle, a junior, to be "real darn careful about driving."
"It's not bad for kids to have to organize something, make their own rules and then follow them. But the whole aspect of them running around trying to shoot each other gets a little crazy," Linhardt, of Symmes Township, said.
In the Dewald family, two sons and a daughter have graduated through the game. Son Chad, the eldest, is given credit for setting the rules.
"It was a real good way of getting to know your classmates. Really, it was just good clean fun," mother Marty Dewald said.
Dewald thinks her kids learned something along the way. Chad strengthened his arbitration skills when he had to settle player disputes as a game judge. Planning ambushes and other trickery exercised a lot of creativity, she said.
In lieu of drinking
Sycamore High School officials began cracking down on the game in the late 1990s. They banned any Dart Wars activity on school grounds and school-sponsored events in 1999 after a carload of students was rear-ended jumping from a vehicle to shoot another team.
Associate Principal Jim Skoog has gained a reputation as the "commandant" in charge of confiscation. It is his job to police the parking lot and take guns and darts that are visible in cars.
The first day of Dart Wars this year, he collected 25 guns and put five teams out of business. They were disqualified for breaking the "no-school" rules.
"We nailed a bunch of them, and that's the easy way to do it. Nobody knows the rules or reads them all. They just start to play," Skoog said.
He's talked to police in both communities about calling a halt to Dart Wars. Officers suggested that Montgomery and Blue Ash could pass resolutions to outlaw the game, he said. So far, nothing has been done.
"That's the only way that it would stop," Skoog said.
Players say it would be unfair to kill off Dart Wars.
"As long as there is no damage to property, it's not hurting anything. It's not illegal," Andrew Shaver said. "I think it's something for kids to do instead of going out drinking or something like that. It's a good alternative."
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