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Water-gun game causes safety concerns for police, West Jefferson Hills school officials

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

What was meant as a fun elimination game, played with plastic water guns, is finished for the season.

Organizers of the “TJ Assassins 2013” game canceled the remainder of the season after Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills police started working with administrators in the West Jefferson Hills School District to stop what the officials call reckless behavior. Police were alerted that it was “Assassins” season earlier in April when confused and alarmed residents called 911 when they saw teenagers involved in high-speed chases, blocking each other's vehicles, driving through homeowners' yards and running with squirt guns, said Chief Eugene Roach of the Jefferson Hills police.

Police and district officials said they have zero tolerance for anyone found in violation of the law or district policy.

“The kids look at it as a game ... everybody wants to win the game,” Roach said. “This is not a game from our perspective.”

Hamsini Rajgopal, the school district's acting assistant superintendent, released a statement reminding students of the district's policies. Disciplinary actions taken by the district could include limitation in student participation in end-of-the year activities, including prom and graduation, Rajgopal said.

“There will be consequences for infractions which occur during school hours, on school property and at school-sponsored activities and events,” she wrote.

Students involved in the game declined to talk to the South Hills Record or did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.

Money collected by “TJ Assassins 2013” organizers as a prize will be returned to students in the next 10 days or donated to a charity, according to an update posted to the game website on April 8.

“Assassins” is played in other communities, schools and colleges and came to the South Hills three or four years ago. A group of more than 150 Thomas Jefferson High School juniors and seniors, are listed by name as participants in “TJ Assassins 2013” on a website created for the game. A Twitter account, where students posted updates for the game, had more than 300 followers last week.

The rules to the game, as stated on the website, are simple: Students in groups of three target and eliminate each other by water-gun fire. Teens also are eliminated if their team doesn't reach a hit quota.

Any illegal activity to reach a goal is prohibited and serves as a cause for removal from the game, the rules stated. Likewise, no eliminations are allowed to take place on school property during school hours, while a targeted student participates in an extracurricular activity, or during funeral or church services.

Police are thinking of public safety first when responding to the “Assassins” game, Roach said.

“I don't think they know what the game is. Nobody can really tell what's going on,” Roach said. “Cars are to be driven on the streets, not in peoples' yards ... That doesn't belong in a residential neighborhood, or anywhere else for that matter.”

Last week, four teens, all younger than 18, were charged with reckless driving while playing the “Assassins” game, Roach said. Other crimes players can be charged with include but are not limited to trespassing by a motor vehicle, criminal mischief, careless driving and speeding.

Pleasant Hills police first responded to “Assassins” activities this year on April 4, when one player called 911 because other players' vehicles had blocked his in on Dutch Lane, and he couldn't get out of his car, said Chief Edward Cunningham of the Pleasant Hills police.

“It's a very unwise use of 911,” Cunningham said. “We just don't want anybody getting hurt.”

Last year, a group of players were caught at 6:30 a.m. dressed head to toe in black waiting outside of another player's home, Cunningham said.

“This scares the daylights out of the residents,” Cunningham said.

Teenagers at other schools, too, are spooked by the attention this year's “Assassins” season attracted.

Colin McLaughlin, a senior at Baldwin High School, attempted to get this year's “Assassins” game going, he said. He received positive feedback about organizing the game from his peers until the incident with TJ students.

Now, his communication about the game on Twitter goes unanswered. McLaughlin said he would feel terrible if any of his friends or classmates got into trouble or got hurt because of the game.

“I just don't know if there's any interest,” McLaughlin said. “I kind of had second thoughts .. I fear getting in trouble.”

Laura Van Wert is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5814 or at lvanwert@tribweb.com. Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or at shacke@tribweb.com.

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