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Seeley schools have
problems with 'laser pointers'

by Patricia Swan Smith
For the Pathfinder
February 4, 1999

Often times what starts out as someone just having fun ends up with someone else being injured. Many such tragedies can be prevented.

According to Missoula County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Parcell, the new "entertainment" and/or "distraction" at the Seeley Swan High School is created with laser pointers. The laser pointers can cause temporary or permanent eye damage.

Some of the pointers display a dot of red light while others display cute little red shapes like Cupid.

According to Principal Kim Haines, so far this year the Seeley Swan High School has had six incidents where the pointers have been used inappropriately including a teacher being hit directly in the eye.

The pointers have also been used as a distraction at a basketball game and a play, he said.

The laser pointers were originally made to aid instructors with over-head projection, maps and other chalk board displays. If used improperly, they can be considered weapons.

According to the November/December issue of "Air Beat", a journal of the Law Enforcement Association, the damage to the eye from the energy beam ranges from startle/distraction, glare, flash-blindness and after-image to hemorrhages and lesions.

While "temporary" blindness may not seem very serious, if the temporary blindness is inflicted upon a pilot of a plane or the driver of a vehicle or public transportation, the consequences could be deadly. There have been close calls such as these in both the United States and Canada.

"The little bullet-shaped pointers are in fact so common that they have become kids' toys and serve as a means of flirting and harassment for many adolescents," "Air Beat" reports.

Both students and parents need to be aware of the dangers of the laser pointers and the disciplinary consequences if they chose to ignore the warnings and continue to use them in school or at other functions and activities, Haines said.

One teacher at Seeley Swan High School turned around when the class began to laugh, and was lased directly in the eye. Apparently a student was entertaining the rest of the class by using the laser pointer beam on the teacher's back, Deputy Parcell said.

What seemed to be a little harmless fun could have resulted in permanent blindness, he said.

"We're working very closely with the Sheriff's Department on this," Haines said. "We will not tolerate the use of lasers in this school."

The first student caught using a laser pointer inappropriately simply had the laser taken away. The next occurrence led to suspension. And while that may seem unfair, Haines said that as with any new problem in a school, it may take a couple of incidents before the full potential for either trouble or danger is apparent.

"The first time we had no idea what they were capable of," Haines said. "We thought they were a distraction, but when we became aware of the severity, we had to stiffen the discipline up."

"There is a lot of judgment involved with disciplinary policy. We try to be fair and consistent, but the more you learn about something can lead to disciplinary changes."

Deputy Parcell said the warning labels on the pointers are clear and very apparent. The pointer he confiscated at the basketball game reads as follows: "Avoid exposure. Laser radiation is emitted from the aperture. DANGER Laser radiation. Avoid direct eye exposure."

"We need the kids to know that these things can cause permanent eye damage," Haines said. "If your children have one, please have them leave them at home. We would like everyone to work on this. If any student is caught using one, he or she will be written up, and the punishment will be based on the severity of the offense."

Missoula County Attorney Fred VanValkenburg said that the appropriate charge will be considered on a case by case basis. He said that there are two charges a student could facedisorderly conduct and/or assault. An assault charge could be either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the amount of damage inflicted. If there is bodily injury or reasonable fear of being injured, the student may face felony aggravated assault charges.

"Aggravated assault does not have to cause serious bodily injury," VanValkenburg said. "If a person has reasonable apprehension, or is fearful of being subjected to serious injury, it may carry a felony charge."

According to Seeley Lake Grade School Superintendent John Hebnes, they have banned the laser pointers from the elementary school, and the policy is being prepared.

Principal Kitty Logan from the Swan Valley School said that while they have not had any at the school, the students have been told that the pointers are not allowed at school.

The pointers can be purchased for as little as $20.00. According to Air Beat, the earliest report of inappropriate use of a laser pointer was in October of 1981 when a Los Angels Police Department helicopter was lased.

In 1997, the British ban the use of numerous types of laser pointers due to the number of inappropriate uses affecting the general population and athletes.

In 1998, the United States had numerous incidents reported.

To make matters worse, Air Beat reports that "while usually these red dots are emitted from a stand-alone laser-pointer, they have been attached to firearms in enough instances to create an ambiguous and disturbing situation."

"If I see a laser beam on any part of my body, I don't have time to ask if it's a laser pointer or a weapon, I have to assume the worst, and take immediate action," Deputy Parcell said. We need to get people educated on these things before something tragic happens."

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