Oakland Tribune

Students in Fruitvale trade toy weapons for books, pencils
By Alex Katz

Saturday, December 07, 2002 - OAKLAND -- Fruitvale Elementary School Principal Cherie Ivey asked students an unusual question to start Friday's assembly: "Have you turned in your weapons yet?"

No, Ivey didn't mean real weapons. She was referring to the toy kind, which the school is trying to eradicate this holiday season with its War Against Improper Toys (WAIT) campaign.

A table at Friday's assembly was buried under a pile of replica pump shotguns, rifles and pistols, toy knives and violent video games that children brought to exchange for books and pencils. Children read poems about gun violence, and an Oakland police officer carted the toys away to be destroyed.

Ivey said she organized the drive in response to violence in the city.

"We don't want to hear about 104 homicides in Oakland, we want to hear about 104 doctors coming out of Oakland, or 104 teachers coming out of Oakland," she said.

School Board President Kerry Hamill told children toy companies are taking advantage of them by selling violence-themed products.

"Cynical people who are trying to make money create these toys, and they teach you to play games and relate to each other in a damaging way," Hamill said. "The people who are trying to make money off you with these weapons, we just want you to outsmart them."

While some might not draw a direct link between toy guns and real weapons, school leaders said they want to make children avoid any guns, real or fake.

Fifth-grade teacher Thomas Hardy said some of his students have older siblings in gangs or in jail. If you ask fifth-graders where they can find a gun, the majority will know, he said.

"They live in the real world," Hardy said. "This is Fruitvale."

Parent Sonja Selewicz said she hopes the school's effort will reach parents. "Some of the parents really don't get it," she said.

Third-grader Alex Dunn said he turned in 10 toy guns Friday, but said the school has the wrong idea about squirt guns.

"Squirt guns are not dangerous, they're onlydangerous if you put something bad inside," he said, citing mustard and acid as substances that could make a squirt gun harmful.

Students plan to write letters to a toy company and retailer, Toys "R" Us, asking it to remove violent products from the shelves, Ivey said.

Toys "R" Us doesn't sell toy guns, and hasn't since 1994, said Susan McLaughlin, director of public relations at the company's New Jersey corporate office.

The stores might sell squirt guns, but nothing that is made to look real, McLaughlin said.

At the Emeryville Toys "R" Us, a search found no replica guns or swords, although the store does sell violent video games and military-style dolls carrying assault rifles.

But at the Lion & Lamb Project, a national group working against marketing of violent toys to children, Executive Director Daphne White said some Toys "R" Us stores do sell toy guns, as well as more disturbing toys.

At the Wheaton, Md. Toys "R" Us, White said she recently bought a Battle Blaster, a toy gun that yells "Fire! Fire!" when you pull the trigger, as well as an Army Forward Command Post, which is a doll house with holes in the roof and bullets on the floor designed to look like it was hit with a bomb.

Both toys can be found on the Lion & Lamb Project's "Dirty Dozen" list of violent toys at lionlamb.org

The doll house, which is marked as appropriate for children as young as 5, comes with "accessories" such as toy machine guns, a rocket launcher and other weapons. Different versions of the toy are made by several companies in China.

The toy has been widely criticized as trivializing war.

"Especially at a time of war and terrorism and snipers, it is frightening and confusing to give children violent toys to play with," White said. "The message these toys give is violence is fun, violence is funny, violence is entertaining."

Fruitvale Elementary is apparently the first school in Oakland to hold a drive to get rid of violent toys.

The Temple of Hope Family Church, which helped organize the Fruitvale event, will exchange violent toys for gift bags at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 22 in the Merritt College student lounge.