Teens Loose in the Upper Valley; Annual Spring Assassin Game Raises Safety Concerns
Trevor Marsh, of Plainfield, a senior at Lebanon High School, strategizes with his Assassin teammate Jeff Taylor, also of Plainfield and a Lebanon High senior, over how most effectively to ambush a classmate as she walked to her car from work on Etna Road in Lebanon on Wednesday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon High School seniors, Jeff Taylor and Trevor Marsh, carry plastic water guns across a parking lot while Taylor’s younger brother, Jack Taylor, a ninth-grader at Lebanon High, tags along during a planned ambush of a classmate’s workplace on Etna Road in Lebanon Wednesday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
U.S. Presidents enjoy the advance work and protective efforts of the Secret Service. Lebanon High senior Jeff Taylor has his kid brother, Jack.
During several mornings earlier this week, Jeff Taylor dispatched his sibling from their Meriden home to see if anyone was lying in wait: Specifically, Taylor’s classmates who are participating in the annual senior class game known as Assassin. A version known as “Squirt Fest, 2013” is underway at Hanover High and students are attempting to organize the same activity at Hartford High.
Assassin, as the game is played locally, features four-person teams matched against each other with the goal of “killing’’ or “tagging” the opposing squad’s members by hitting them with water. The water can be propelled by squirt gun, balloon, bottle or syringe. At the end of a week, the team with the most surviving members advances to the next round.
Each of Lebanon High’s 22 teams paid a $12 entry fee, and whoever wins also scores the entire pot — $264. Elise Austin-Washburn, a Hanover High senior, said the entry fee at her school is $20 per team per round. She estimated that 75 percent of her class is playing, with more than 30 teams involved.
“People go crazy,” said Lebanon junior Henry Kovacs, who’s eagerly awaiting his class’ turn next spring. “They get real intense about it.”
But student enthusiasm for what has become a rite of spring is not shared by school administrators, who although they have little control over what kids do in their free time and off school property, nonetheless would be happy to see Assassin go away.
The issue, in the eyes of school administrators, is simply the safety risk the game poses — a kid darting in traffic to squirt an opponent, for example, or even someone mistaking a toy gun for a real one in an encounter that might end tragically.
“I understand it’s a lot of fun, but I get concerned about the risks they take in cars,’’ said Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons.
Ground rules of Assassin ban playing the game on school grounds or during extracurricular activities. Players doing the hunting also may not enter their prey’s home unless invited inside by a dweller, and they should respect private property and must allow opponents a five-minute grace period to safely arrive and depart from school or work.
Much of the game’s appeal stems not so much from dousing an opponent in water, but in the plotting, stalking and execution involved. Ambushes outside players’ residences are common in the early mornings and at night. Participants have been known to sleep at a friend or relative’s house to throw foes off their trail.
“The other day, I had people waiting for me on the other side of my truck when I came out of my house,’’ said Lebanon senior Phoebe Buckman, who is jointly running the game with classmate Taylor Friedman, using a Facebook page to communicate with players. “They shot my passenger door just as I closed it. Then I stuck my gun out and got one of them.”
Jeff Taylor said he was recently at a foe’s house at 10:30 p.m., ear pressed to a bedroom window, eavesdropping on a phone call.
“I was listening to him talking to his teammates,’’ Taylor said with a grin while standing in Lebanon High’s parking lot on Wednesday afternoon. “We found out some of his plans to come after us.”
Just then, Taylor’s cell phone rang. He excused himself and began speaking with a teammate.
“She’s inside? You can’t get her?” Taylor said in a disappointed voice. “Can you wait her out until after she’s done working? OK. Well, Vinnie’s on her side, then, because he lied to us about her work schedule.”
Worries Over Safety
The game’s fox-and-hounds strategy of deceit and double-crosses may preoccupy Taylor and his friends, but the worries of Lebanon High’s Parsons are more concrete.
In her sixth year on the job, Parsons said she has fretted each spring about the potential for injury while students are chasing each other around town. Parsons recalled a “fender bender” caused by Assassin a few years ago and Taylor said a participant running through the woods this week fell, hit his head and suffered a concussion. Yesterday, teenagers were seen popping out of one car to squirt at the occupants of another while both vehicles waited at a red light at the intersection of Route 120 and Heater Road.
“I have a lot of one-on-one conversations with kids about their safety, about not chasing each other in moving vehicles or running across roads,” Parsons said.
At the same time, Parsons said she’s not as worried about whether Assassin is appropriate in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut last year and the Boston Marathon bombing last month.
As President of the New Hampshire Association of School Principals, she testified before state legislators in February, speaking against guns being carried in schools for potential self-defense.
“This game isn’t about violence, the same way the card game ‘War’ isn’t about war,’’ Parsons said. “Sometimes we attribute more to a situation than really needs to be attributed.”
Hanover High Principal Justin Campbell, who’s in his first year in that job, said he recently sent an email to students and their parents, expressing his safety concerns about Squirt Fest.
He and Frank Bass, the Dresden School District superintendent, said they would like the game to stop, but are trying to achieve that goal in concert with students. Campbell said participants chose to rename the game this year and to call elimination actions “tags” to reduce the game’s violent connotations.
“Can we massage this issue to have conversations with students about the ethics of this game and how it affects the image of our school?” Bass said.
At Hartford High School, Principal Joseph Collea was unaware of Assassin until asked about it by a reporter yesterday morning. He said subsequent discussions with students led him to a girl who is trying to organize such a game without much luck. He estimated that fewer than 20 seniors had signed up.
“I told this young lady that I would be happy to see this idea go away, but that I can’t prevent them from doing things off school property and on their own time,’’ Collea said. “I grew up playing cowboys and Indians and I killed my best friend a thousand times, but this is a day of wholesale destruction on video games and it’s a fact of real life around the world.
“I have to remember these are kids, but I’m crossing my fingers that this is the end of it.”
Gary Smith, Lebanon’s Interim Police Chief, said Assassin hasn’t caused any serious problems recently. There are occasional calls about competitors loitering, chasing each other or sitting in parked cars for long stretches, he said.
“They seem to use (squirt) guns that are bright colors, so there’s no mistaking them for real guns,’’ Smith said. “The kids we’ve dealt with on this have been pretty responsible and respectful.
“I think that morally, maybe they shouldn’t have done it this year because of the recent violence issues. But we’re talking about kids and they’re enjoying themselves. They’re not going to feel the same way I do about this issue and I understand that.”
Taylor said he realizes why parents might think the game “has gotten a little out of hand” and he’s cognizant of how people might find the activity unsettling in a time of school shootings and bombings.
“I can definitely respect where people are coming from in that way,’’ he said. “But this is a game and it’s been going on for a long time.”
Said Buckman: “A lot of people play with water guns anyways. Nobody’s going about it maliciously, which is what real gunmen do.”
When Play Goes Awry
An Internet search for “assassin game” brings up numerous media reports about teens playing at high schools across the U.S. that resulted of the fun going awry. Pittsburgh television station WTAE posted an account on its website last month in which Pleasant Hills police received a 911 call from a panicked player who had been cornered in his driveway by what Police Chief Edward Cunningham described as “a disorderly gang.”
During 2011, two participants in an “Assassin” game at Hillsborough High in Hillsbrough, N.J., received disorderly conduct charges for having imitation weapons near the school, which was locked down after a resident called police to report a person pointing a gun out a vehicle window.
In 2009, a student at New Hampshire’s Exeter High School was playing the game was spotted behind a restaurant holding a gun and with his sweatshirt pulled over his head. Police responded to a call reporting an armed intruder on the premises. That same year near Tacoma, Wash., a package was left in a shopping center flower bed to inform an “Assassin” player that he had been ruled dead. Instead, it triggered a scare that closed a Costco store and two nearby car dealerships and brought out the bomb squad.
In Lebanon, Jeff Taylor was recently eliminated from his school’s game, which he said was actually a relief. He can still help his eligible teammates hunt and pursue opponents, and he has jumped in front of water shot at his buddies, acting as a sort of human shield. In addition, he’s not nearly as jumpy anymore.
“This game is a lot more nerve-wracking than you think,’’ Taylor said. “It’s pretty stressful to become paranoid every time you walk outside.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 727-3227.