‘Assassins’ game sparks concern

WHEELING (AP) — Laurel Robb spends her time coordinating other teenagers who are lingering around businesses and public areas, hiding behind homes and cars and trying to douse their opponents with a spray from a water pistol — all while wearing disguises such as ski masks to hide their identities.

The Wheeling Park High School senior is one of three in charge of running a game teenagers call “Assassins.” The game is not new, and teens playing it have said they do it just for fun.

But police, business owners and school officials have shown a renewed interest in how teens play the game and have said they are concerned the fun could lead to something more dangerous.

“I’ve heard some stories, and I’m concerned,” said Shawn Schwertfeger, chief of the Wheeling Police Department.

“We say the same thing over and over again every year. If you’re gonna be playing the game, you have to have common sense, and carrying something that looks like a firearm, even if it’s a squirt gun, is not safe.

“In my opinion, it’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” said the chief. “It’s not a controlled environment.”

Meanwhile, businesses are going as far as contacting those involved with the game to prevent it from taking place on their properties. Brooke Hutson, a manager at Bed, Bath and Beyond at The Highlands, sent a text message to one of the group members who, in turn, posted it to the group’s Twitter account.

“I would like to please make our place of employment and parking lot a safe zone for our employees and customers,” said Hutson in her text.

But Robb said she and the other administrators — fellow Park classmates Sierra Donaldson and Nicole Ridgley — have made efforts to ensure the teens playing the games remain respectful of property owners and stay safe.

“We have respected business’s requests at making their place off limits because we are aware of the concerns they have for this game,” said Robb. “We try our best at keeping the game safe, fair and fun.

“Business owners and law enforcement have always showed concern to this game in the past, but I believe that Nicole, Sierra and I have done a good job at letting everyone know of places that are off limits,” said Robb.

About 112 Wheeling-area high school students from Park, Wheeling Central Catholic and The Linsly School are playing the game this year. The object is for each two-person team to eliminate the others. The winning team gets to split a cash prize of more than $1,000 from a pot created from a $20 buy-in that each team paid to participate.

Here’s how it works: Each team must have at least one member who is a junior or senior from Park, Linsly or Central. At least one player must be able to drive and have a car. According to the rules, players must live in, or close to, Wheeling. Teams are assigned another team to target and spray with a water gun.

The team that “assassinates” the other team then takes a picture and posts it online to prove they eradicated the other team. The winning team collects the prize money after all other teams are gone.

Rules include not attacking their targets during school hours, at work, during prom or at sporting events. If property owners request an area be off limits, students notify one another via social media. Students will be eliminated automatically if law enforcement officials are contacted, if anyone tries to hurt someone else or if a player is expelled from school.

A slew of businesses and other organizations have reached out to the students in an effort to prevent the game from taking place there. They include Mooey’s at The Highlands, AutoZone in Elm Grove, the YWCA in Wheeling and C3 Church in Wheeling. Scrolling through the group’s Twitter page, @whgassassins18, indicates there may be dozens more.

Turn it Out Dance Academy in Bellaire, C3 Church in Wheeling and Mooey’s at The Highlands have said the students have been respectful of their wishes to refrain from any “Assassins” events taking place on their properties.

And the teenagers who have played the game in the past said the kids are just trying to have a good time.

“It’s a super-fun game that brings all of the high schools in the area together,” said Kaitlyn Scott, a 2016 Park graduate who also said the game helps students end their school years on a high note.

“It’s thrilling in a way because you always have to be on edge and aware of your surroundings,” said Scott. “If you need to go to the store or out in public, you have to go undercover so that way no one knows it’s you out and about.”

Officials at Wheeling Park and Wheeling Central Catholic could not be reached for comment. But Justin Zimmerman, headmaster of Linsly, released a prepared statement about the game.

“Both as a parent and as a school administrator, I have many concerns about the students involved in this game,” said Zimmerman. “Mostly, I fear someone is going to be badly hurt, or that an accident will occur as a result of participating in the game. While we cannot control who participates in the game off campus during non-school hours, we can do our part as a school to educate our students and parents about the negative implications of participating in the game.

“Ultimately, I think parents need to know more about how the game is played and how dangerous it can be for their child to participate,” he said.

Still, Robb said she believes that the adding Donaldson and Ridgley to help administer the game has improved overall safety. Previously, only one person was in charge of administering the game.

“It’s also a good feeling making the game more fun for the players,” said Robb. “Since we are in charge, it allows us three to create the rules and to make sure the players are having fun, but most importantly be safe.”

Schwertfeger said he disagrees.

“It’s the behavior, not the leadership, I’m concerned about,” said the chief.