Eight high schools are scrambling for starter guns after the Los Angeles Unified School District's athletic office banned the use of real guns at track meets in an effort to comply with its zero-tolerance weapons policy.
Earlier this year the district learned many track starters shot blanks from firearms to signify the start of a meet because, as the starters explained, real guns are louder and produce a more visible smoke than starter pistols.
"Obviously that goes against our zero-tolerance policy prohibiting live guns on campus," said Jeff Halpern, an advisor in the district's athletic office. "We don't want weapons getting into the wrong hands."
In a March 5 memo, Halpern informed coaches and athletic directors that ". . . track starters will no longer be able to use a real gun to start our track meets" and asked that for now, schools with starter guns share with schools lacking them.
A recent survey by the athletic office found that 23 high schools, including Canoga Park, San Fernando and John Francis Polytechnic, do not have closed-barrel starter pistols, which are basically large cap guns.
On Thursday, the district alerted eight schools without starter guns about its ban. The schools are scheduled this spring to compete in track meets, including two meets that begin today between Lincoln and Marshall, and Belmont and Hollywood high schools.
"A lot of schools were surprised they didn't have [starter guns]," Halpern said. "And some coaches aren't happy because of the short notice."
The California Track Starters Assn., which assigns starters to LAUSD track meets, isn't happy either. Ed Austin, the group's instructional chairman, said each starter is an individual contractor who earns between $42 and $68 a meet. A decent starter pistol costs about $130, he said, or the equivalent of working two to three meets for free. "They're not too happy," said Austin, who's been a starter for 40 years.
In districts across Southern California, Austin said it's common for starters to shoot blanks from real pistols. "The majority use real guns," he said. "We've been doing this for 50 years and nothing has happened, we make darn sure of it."
Starters who use real guns lock them in a bag when they're finished so students can't take the guns, Austin said.
Background checks on starters aren't required, he added. But he said most starters are respectable citizens, such as teachers, firefighters and police officers.
"Perhaps one of these days we'll need to do a background check," Austin said. "But we've been fortunate.'