In ‘a different world,’ street games draw censure

YOUNG LIFE. High school water-gun fight raises safety concerns, and playing basketball on a side street elicits an official warning.

| 15 May 2023 | 02:26

As a water-gun game played by high school seniors nationwide gets under way, some see a needed opportunity for kids to be kids, while law enforcement and school officials fear the worst.

The elimination game, Assassins, began in Warwick, N.Y., on the evening of May 7, with a record 85 teams of two attempting to “assassinate” (soak with water) their assigned targets within a week and to document the “hit” via video.

Each team pays a $5 entry fee, and the last team standing takes home the prize money. School grounds are off-limits during school hours.

The Warwick game has ballooned since last year, when about 30 teams took part, said Fiona Egan, the senior organizing this year’s game.

The growth came from “people last year just talking about it, seeing how much fun it was,” she said. “Kids just want to have that same kind of fun, you know?”

Warwick Police Chief John Rader feels differently. “Obviously, our position’s going to be that this game is not safe and shouldn’t be played.”

With school shootings making headlines regularly - and a 20-year-old woman shot and killed last month in upstate New York for accidentally driving up the wrong driveway, some say the potential for misinterpretation with the game is not worth the risk.

Trespassing at all hours, hiding in bushes and surprising people with water guns, sometimes from car windows, has led to spikes in 911 calls in many small towns.

“It wouldn’t just be the police seeing something like that; anybody from the public could think that somebody was in some sort of danger,” said Rader.

This is the first year that Assassins has been on the department’s radar, he said. “We did receive intel. I believe it first started in the Goshen school district, so our officers are aware of this game that’s circulating.”

In Goshen, school administrators urged families to “consider the safety” of the off-campus game after learning of it via a social media post.

Village police voiced concerns about potential fallout from the spectacle of people chasing each other with weapons on foot or in cars.

“This activity, when conducted in uncontrolled public places, could cause public alarm, citizen intervention, and 911 calls generating a police response and causing a public safety issue,” Chief James Watt wrote in a letter to families May 2. “The thrill of the game could impede judgment, and participants may be oblivious to how their behavior could be viewed.”

Egan, who’s headed to North Carolina Wesleyan University to play volleyball and study pre-vet, is following in the footsteps of her sister, who organized the first Warwick game in 2021, and her cousin, who ran it last year.

Parental support

Her mother and other parents have taken to social media to spread the word that the game is going on and is harmless.

“I think it just brings the whole grade together. We had to go through Covid, and then getting back last year, and this is our first normal year, so I think it’s really good to get everyone together. It’s stressful running it, but all I hear in school is people talking about it, so it’s really nice to hear people having fun,” said Egan.

As the game grows and evolves, so does the list of rules. One new rule this year is that if you’re working, you can assassinate someone who comes into your workplace. But you can’t be assassinated while you’re working, said Egan.

The game is meant to be silly - wearing pool floaties confers immunity, for instance, but they can be worn only two days a week.

Social media reactions to the game were mostly positive. “Nice to see them off their phones and just having some fun with their fellow classmates!” said the mother of a boy who’d done it the previous year.

For Kevin Komorsky, a retired New York Police Department homicide detective who lives in Warwick, hearing about the game “raised a red flag right away,” he said.

He suggested making sure that the guns are brightly colored and alerting local police about the game.

On May 9, sheriff’s deputies responded to a call involving a group of high school students in Putnam County, N.Y., playing Assassins “with realistic-looking water guns,” according to the sheriff’s office. The department posted a photo of half a dozen seized water guns that bore a strong resemblance to real pistols.

Egan said she planned to reiterate to the players that water guns must be brightly colored. That day, a safety reminder to that effect went up on the game’s Instagram page. “They have to be toy water guns,” she said. Still, “it always is a concern,” she said, referring to the safety issue.

Komorsky said, “I’m not anti-kids playing, please, I feel horrible even bringing it up. But this is the world we live in.”

Imagine, a police officer sees a teenager reach into his backpack, pull out what looks like a gun and put it to another kid’s head, he said. Perhaps the officer can’t see the telltale orange tip from where he’s standing.

“We’re all going to be screaming that this officer took action and shot a boy for playing a water-gun game, but in reality how is the cop to know? No one’s walking around with a halo or horns to know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. In today’s day and age, you’ve got kids from poor, middle class to the wealthiest families carrying out these school shootings. It’s just not very bright,” he said.

His 13-year-old twins will not be playing the game when they get to be seniors, he said.

In West Milford, N.J., Jennifer Meza’s daughter, a high school senior, has been leaving the house with her backpack in front, track bag in back and floaties on her arms.

“Played responsibly, these kids are entitled to some fun,” said Meza, a pricing specialist at global metal-cutting company Sandvik Coromant.

Her daughter’s first attempt at assassinating her target, at a friend’s sports game, was foiled when her target was wearing his own immunity-conferring floaties.

“The seniors, they’ve had a rough four years,” she said. Her daughter missed out on an international trip with the music program and her sports seasons have been curtailed. “It’s harmless fun, as far as I’m concerned.”

As for the potential for misinterpretation, “I understand that concern 100 percent now. You have to be very careful with everything. Even the other day, the West Milford High School had a bomb threat and you can’t take it as somebody just called in a bomb threat any more. All three schools that were close by were on lockdown. Things that you took for granted before, you can’t take for granted. It’s just a different world from when I went to school,” Meza said.

“I want the kids to be able to have some fun - but yet, there should be some guidelines.” Her daughter’s gun is brightly colored, and she’s been playing in broad daylight, she said. “They have to be smart about how they’re playing.”

Prohibited in street

Chatter winged its way through the Village of Warwick after a family received a warning for playing basketball on their quiet side street in April.

First came a visit from a building inspector, then a notice in the mail instructing the Lopez family to remove their portable basketball hoop from the sidewalk and to stop using John Street as a basketball court “contrary to local law.”

A second page of the notice contained a village ordinance that residents found surprising: Playing games in street or alleys is prohibited.

The ordinance is one that is enforced “sporadically,” said Mayor Michael Newhard. “It’s complaint-driven because we understand neighborhoods are all different. If there’s a consensus in the neighborhood that it’s great to play basketball in the cul-de-sac, we’re not going to spoil the fun. But if one of the neighbors complains because there is no consensus, we have to come to an agreement.”

Sometimes it’s noise and sometimes it’s safety that triggers the complaint. “There have been skateboard ramps that have been set up in streets. Definitely safety is the greatest consideration that we have because as time goes on, less of our streets are sleepy. There’s more traffic per square inch,” he said.

“There’s not a lot of traffic on John Street. I can see why a basketball hoop would end up on the street,” he added.

If the warning were to go unheeded and the neighbor complained again, the matter would go to village court, Newhard said.

In response to the warning, Christina Lopez pulled the basketball hoop off the sidewalk and into her driveway. Now, if the kids want to play, they pull it out and put it back when they’re done, she said.

Basketball can be loud, she admitted.

Her husband, Armando, information-technology director for the New York Historical Society, works from home part-time.

“When the kids are playing, it drives him nuts - it hits the door, it hits the car,” she said, referring to the basketball. “But at the same time - you take the good with the bad, I guess.”

Village attractions

Street life and walkability were major reasons that the Lopez family moved to Warwick from New York City nearly 13 years ago, said Lopez, an event planner and mother of a 12-and a 9-year-old.

“We have significantly outgrown our house and we’ve just decided it’s not worth finding a bigger space when we live on such a great little street with the kids playing, and you know, we can walk to the village and why would we want to change that? It’s such a good neighborhood.”

The complaint was anonymous, but Lopez believes that it came from an elderly neighbor who has put “quiet zone” signs up in front of her house in the past. The woman’s daughter once told the Lopez family that the basketball noise was triggering for her mom and asked if they could play at the park.

There used to be a basketball hoop down the block, but since those neighbors moved, the one at their house has seen more action, Lopez said.

The kids do sometimes go to the park or walk to town. “But it’s nice to have them right here,” she said. “The difficult part is, where we live in the village nobody has really a big driveway. It’s hard for me to say they can’t play basketball in the street when we don’t have a busy street.

“It’s not just my kid, it’s all of the kids. We leave the basketballs out. If you took a picture of the front of my house, you’d see basketballs, hockey sticks, footballs. It almost feels like John Street and all of the yards in the street is just one giant backyard.

“It wasn’t our intention to bring anyone down,” Lopez said, referring to her neighbor. “She’s an older woman and it’s difficult, but the reason we live here is for the fact that our kids can play and we’re not worried about them outside, so it’s a tricky situation.”

Since the warning, there has been a lull in the ball playing, said Joseph Natale, whose 11- and 15-year-olds are part of the tight-knit John Street group of friends. “I feel like the kids are a little afraid to go play basketball.”

Then again, it could just be that they are busy playing their various spring sports and activities. “It’s tough, I don’t know how to proceed,” he said.

Lopez doesn’t want to tell the kids that they can’t play outside when they see the neighbor’s car in the driveway.

Newhard wondered whether there was a way to come to a “pax Romana” with the neighbor.

“We all grew up playing in the street,” said Natale, who grew up in Rockland County and moved to Warwick about 18 years ago. “I love the little community. I love the music in town. I always felt like it was a community that had things for the kids. And this kind of puts a damper on that, you know?”

He and his wife are pediatric occupational therapists who work in schools, where they see the effects of too much screen time constantly, he said.

“These kids have no upper body strength, which affects handwriting, affects their ability to perform in school, because they don’t go out and play any more,” he said.

“All these kids with ADHD, they’ve gotta have an outlet. A lot of these kids with attention problems, it’s because they’re not getting an outlet to get all the energy out.”

This activity, when conducted in uncontrolled public places, could cause public alarm, citizen intervention, and 911 calls generating a police response and causing a public safety issue.” Police Chief James Watt, Goshen, N.Y.
If there’s a consensus in the neighborhood that it’s great to play basketball in the cul-de-sac, we’re not going to spoil the fun. But if one of the neighbors complains because there is no consensus, we have to come to an agreement.” - Mayor Michael Newhard, Village of Warwick, N.Y.
The seniors, they’ve had a rough four years. It’s harmless fun, as far as I’m concerned.” - Jennifer Meza, mother of West Milford High School student