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Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as School Officials Looking To Ban Laser Pointers

School Officials Looking To Ban Laser Pointers

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It's all fun and games, but what if someone damages an eye?

That's why many schools have banned hand-held laser pointers.

Traditionally used by college professors or business professionals as a pointer during a presentation or lecture, the devices have grown in popularity among students who can now purchase key chains and pens that project a small laser beam for as little as $10.

Many pointer manufacturers are even gearing their marketing to young purchasers, attaching special tips that can transform the beam to reflect dinosaurs, skulls, and other cartoon-like images.

But since the fad started to catch on last year, school officials from Connecticut to Idaho are saying the lasers are not only distracting and annoying, but also dangerous, particularly when students take the lasers onto school buses.

The Nampa, Idaho, district banned laser pointers from school buses last fall because school staff members were concerned that bus drivers could temporarily lose their sight while driving if students directed the lasers at them.

"We had some kids shine them into someone's eyes and cause distractions," said Sheila Kein, the transportation coordinator for the 10,000-student district.

She said the policy allows drivers to confiscate the pointers. "There is no need for students to have laser pointers at school," she said.

Dangerous Weapons?

Jess Crace, the principal of the 710-student West Middle School in Nampa, has confiscated 10 laser pointers so far this year.

"It started with the kids shining them around the room, so we would confiscate them, and they were returned at the end of the day, and students were told to take it home. But they'll keep coming back unless you make it more difficult for the students, so now we only return them to parents," Mr. Crace said.

Lynn Babcock, the principal of Grant Elementary School in Livonia, Mich., and the president-elect of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, agrees that students should not have lasers in school. In fact, she said, her 17,000-student district puts laser pointers in the same category as guns or knives.

"There is a serious concern that they are dangerous to children's vision, and that is scary." she said. "We certainly don't want or need them here."

Despite their concerns, Ms. Kein, Ms. Babcock, and Mr. Crace all admit that they have never heard of any injuries sustained from the lasers at their schools.

That's because the laser pointers have not been proven to cause permanent eye damage, according to Dr. Cheryl Menacker, an ophthalmologist and a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.

She said there have been no confirmed reports of vision loss or permanent eye damage from having the laser pointers shone directly at the eye.

"There are only the anecdotal reports," she said. "Usually the result of a laser pointer in the eye is a dazzling effect--like when you look at any light for too long or someone takes your picture.

Not Just a Nuisance

Nonetheless, Dr. Menacker agrees that they should be banned from schools. "No one knows for sure, though, so schools still have to cover themselves, because you don't know that they're not going to cause problems."

The principal of at least one school says he has proof that laser pointers can cause permanent eye damage.

Cole Brownlee, a 7th grader at Maple Park Middle School in Kansas City, Mo., suffered permanent retinal damage in December after another student shone a laser light in his eye, according to his principal.

"At first, we considered the pointers a nuisance just like any other toy that interferes with learning, but then it was confirmed that they were dangerous," said Principal Scott Wilson, who confiscated about 100 lasers during the first few months of the school year.

Dr. Martin Mainster, a laser-pointer expert for the San Francisco-based American Academy of Ophthalmology, said that retinal damage can occur if someone stares at the laser beam for 10 seconds or more, but that because of natural reflexes, such sustained staring would be highly unlikely.

But he suggested another potential hazard: Police or school security officers might think the dots from a laser pointer are laser sights from a gun.

In Meriden, Conn., the City Council banned laser pointers after police officers pulled their guns on teenagers in a local shopping mall, when they mistakenly believed the youths were spotting them with laser-gun sights.

Meriden Mayor Joseph Marinan said that the 4-month-old ordinance prohibits anyone under age 18 from purchasing, possessing, or using a laser pointer, and bars those who are older than 18 from shining the pointers at anyone.

The local schools this year also banned laser pointers, according to the mayor.

Kim Gorman, an optometrist who serves on the City Council in St. Joseph, Mo., also set to work to restrict laser-pointer use after treating a high school student who had permanent retinal damage. Ms. Gorman says that laser pointers can severely blur vision, sometimes to a level considered legal blindness.

The St. Joseph City Council is writing an ordinance that would make shining a laser pointer at someone with the intent to harm an offense, Ms. Gorman said.

State Action

Meanwhile, Mayor Marinan plans to start lobbying legislators in Connecticut to enact statewide restrictions.

Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based information clearinghouse, said that other states are looking into similar legislation. Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Washington all have laws pending that could make the possession, sale, and use of the pointers unlawful, she said.

She added that a bill in Washington state would specifically prohibit shining the pointers at school bus drivers or other public-transportation employees.

But members of the Dover, Del.-based National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services don't believe laser pointers cause any real problems.

The association's president, Ted Toll, conducted an informal survey of all state directors and received 32 responses. Of those, three directors said laser pointers were of serious concern in their state's schools, 11 said the devices were of moderate concern, and 18 said the pointers were of no concern at all.

When asked if their states had taken any action on the pointers, 26 directors said no, and six said yes. Mr. Toll said many directors noted that student conduct and behavior policies already cover the use of laser pointers in schools.

Those who drive the students say otherwise.

Mike Martin, the executive director of the Albany, N.Y.-based National Association for Pupil Transportation, an organization which represents school-bus-related personnel, said his members were working to get the laser pointers banned from buses in their districts.

"The problem is not uncommon," he said, "and, frankly, it ranks as a very big problem for bus drivers, akin to other driver distractions, even worse."

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 7

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