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'Pens' Owned by Schoolkids Are a Bit of a Shock

In the Inland Empire, the battery-powered hand zappers are a craze, and concerned officials may ban them.

June 23, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Richard George couldn't decide what shocked him more: the continuous zzz-zzz-zap that surged through his fingers and up his arm, or that schoolchildren were allowed to buy the small, black-and-silver device that delivered the electrifying jolt.

The "shock pen" -- available through gag-gift Web sites, at fairs and flea markets, and even from ice-cream trucks -- is the latest "toy" to vex teachers and school officials, including George, principal at Levi Dickey Elementary School in Ontario.

Last week, George suspended three fifth- and sixth-graders for jolting one another with the shock pen, an item that students said they bought for a few dollars from ice-cream trucks circling the campus.

"It is shocking" on all levels, George said. "It's like putting a hand in a socket."

With a rash of shock-pen sightings in the past month, officials in the Chino Valley Unified School District issued warnings to staff and students about the devices, which they said could be dangerous even though they are legal. Leading the effort is Colleen Alton, district security coordinator, who has scoured campuses in Chino, Chino Hills and Ontario for visiting ice-cream trucks stocked with shock.

The pens "weren't hard to find," Alton said, sighing. "This doesn't sound good to me."

Officials in several Southern California school districts said they have not heard of problems with shock pens, but that doesn't mean students aren't playing with them.

The devices resemble ballpoint pens. An AAA or button-cell battery and copper coil combine to produce a zap when a person presses the pen's clicker.

The devices cost about $3 from some ice-cream truck vendors or $24.95 on the Web.

Electricians and Web site advertisements warn that shock pens can generate up to 500 volts. But injury to a healthy person is unlikely because "it's the amperage, or currency, that does the most damage," said Mark Gatlin, the district's electronic technician, who tested a shock pen confiscated from a school. It delivered 500 volts and 6 milliamps, or 6 thousandths of an amp. By comparison, a wall socket produces 115 volts and 15 amps.

Some of the Web sites that sell shock pens also offer shock lighters, shock cell phones, shock computer mouses, shock cameras and other shock schlock, and carry statements by a German manufacturer warning that the devices are not suitable for children under 14, adults over 60 or anyone with a pacemaker.

"What concerns me is the joke done to a person with a pacemaker," Gatlin said. Or to the sickly, young or old. Or to small children, whose tiny frames make them vulnerable to electricity.

"For a joke," Gatlin said, "it's not worth taking the chances."

Alton said she realizes that most students think the novelty is funny. But it's those what-if scenarios that have moved her to try to change school policy and even state law to restrict the devices.

In Chino's 33,000-student district, top school officials said they are leaning toward a ban on the shock toys for all campuses, and suspending students who disobey.

Alton has a conduit for legislation to make selling such items to minors illegal. State Sen. Nell Soto (D-Pomona), to whom parents have complained about the devices, wants to sock it to people who sell students hazardous toys.

"I'm not going to wait until something happens to someone," Soto said. "What on earth would possess someone to sell this stuff to children?"

Money, Alton said. "One ice-cream man I spoke with said the shock pen is one of his best sellers," Alton said.

Another ice cream man was sold out. But another had a full stock, hidden beneath a box of Airhead Extremes candy.

"Kids were asking him" for shock pens, Alton said. "They knew to get them from the ice-cream man."

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has not heard of or received any complaints about the shock pens, an agency representative said.

Attempts to contact manufacturers and businesses that sell them were unsuccessful.

Because the devices are legal, police said, they cannot stop their sale. But anyone, including a student, who zaps someone with malicious intent can be charged with assault and battery, they said.

"For most kids, they're just a gag," said Chino Police Cpl. Ron Vallejo. "They find them funny. They're showing up on campuses all over."

Vallejo said his 14-year-old son bought a shock pen for $4 from an ice-cream man. "I destroyed it," he said. "It's not incapacitating, but they don't belong on school campuses."

Ontario Police Sgt. John Evans agreed, noting that his teenage son told him the shock toys are popular campus accessories. He likened them to laser pointers, which irritated teachers in recent years. Although shock pens may present danger, Evans said, the risk is slim.

Schools "should be more concerned about guns on campus than these things," he said. "Anything can be dangerous in the wrong hands.... A plastic fork can be dangerous."

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