Winnetka, News

Teen game Paranoia draws police attention and community concern

A devastating response to “that couldn’t happen here” nearly occurred last April in Northfield.

On a Saturday afternoon, Northfield police received a call about a masked individual dressed in camouflage and armed with a gun advancing toward the home of Northfield Police Chief William Lustig, according to Village of Northfield documents.

Lustig told village trustees days after the incident that the report drew a swift response from the Northfield Police Department. Officers sped to the scene. Upon arriving at their chief’s home, they located and “drew down on the subject” — meaning they pulled and aimed their firearms at the camouflaged individual.

Upon pulling his mask off, they discovered a 17-year-old boy. He was carrying a Nerf weapon that was spray-painted black and he was stalking an adversary while playing Paranoia, a game New Trier High School students play in which competitors attempt to ambush and, using Nerf weapons, “kill” their opponents.

The local version of Paranoia is played informally at different points in the year, but the flagship spring version is only for New Trier seniors, features a bracket-style format and began April 24, according to multiple New Trier students and parents familiar with the game.

New Trier High School is not involved in Paranoia, said Niki Dizon, the school’s director of communications. She added that students are prohibited from possessing any toy or replica weapons on school grounds, and New Trier officials warned of the game’s dangers after a group of students playing a version of the game led to a police response and grammar-school lockdown on April 5.

“This incident prompted a significant police reponse and caused distress for Kenilworth students and their families,” Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally wrote in an April 5 email do New Trier families. “… Carrying replica weapons in the community can lead to tragedy. This includes participating in games such as Paranoia in which groups of students try to ambush each other with toy weapons for points.”

New Trier students are far from the only area high schoolers who play Paranoia, which also is called Assassins and other names outside the area. Glenbrook South administration in an April email asked parents to talk with their students about the potential consequences of Paranoia, and Lake Forest High School’s student newspaper, “The Forest Scout,” published a news report on Paranoia beginning and a column arguing for its cancelation.

Suburban teens have played games like Paranoia on and off for decades; however, some parents and community members have called the modern version insensitive and reckless, specifically amid today’s gun-tormented society where the number of children hurt and killed by guns has recently spiked, according to Pew Research Center.

A Pew Research chart showing the recent surge in gun deaths among children and teens.

Layla Danley is a local parent and the lead educator of Be Smart — a nonprofit the promotes the secure storage of firearms — in New Trier Township. She said things have changed since the founding of Paranoia and even more so in just the past few years.

“We’re living in a different world than that point in time,” Danley said. “Sandy Hook (2012) hadn’t happened, Highland Park hadn’t happened. There are swatting incidents (false reports that draw a heavy and armed emergency response). It’s a community that is on alert, the community has been traumatized. When the game started, firearms weren’t the No. 1 cause of death among children in the country. They are now.”

Danley’s thoughts have been echoed by local police departments, and their concerns have become reality multiple times in the past year.

In addition to the frightening responses in Northfield in 2022 and near Joseph Sears School, a grammar school in Kenilworth, on April 5 of this year, both Winnetka and Wilmette police departments confirmed responding to similar reports in recent years.

Winnetka Interim Police Chief Brian O’Connell did not provide precise data but said via email that within the past year his department has responded to multiple reports of firearms in the community only to find “individuals using or displaying realistic-looking toy guns. These incidents were perceived by community members as real threats.”

In one such incident, visitors to Dwyer Park dove for cover when a masked juvenile threatened another child before displaying and discharging a soft-projectile weapon.

“Displaying toy weapons in public can result in misunderstandings and have far-reaching consequences,” O’Connell said.

Fortunately, local misunderstandings have avoided immediately tragic consequences. That is not so in other parts of the country, where shootings stemming from harmless activity recently made national headlines.

In Kansas City on April 13, Andrew Lester shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl twice after Yarl inadvertently came to Lester’s front door looking for a family member; and in upstate New York on April 16, Kevin Monahan fired two shots into a car that pulled into his driveway, killing 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis.

Tragedies like what happened in Kansas City and New York frighten Glencoe parent Allison Shaewitz.

Her youngest child, a middle-schooler, is already aware of Paranoia, and she can’t help but think of what could happen if her or any child pulled out a toy firearm around an on-edge individual with a real one.

“I am more concerned because we are so armed as a nation,” Shaewitz said. “Some of these (fake) guns look very real. That’s my bigger concern. … And I think we are more armed on the North Shore than we think we are.”

“There are so many chances for something to go severely wrong.”
A Winnetka woman who recently came across a teen playing paranoia

Multiple New Trier seniors, who spoke to The Record independently and on the condition of anonymity, said this year’s Paranoia began on April 24 with close to 90 teams, usually consisting of four to six players, competing for a prize purse of more than $8,000. Paranoia typically lasts a month — sometimes longer, the students said.

The rules of Paranoia — a copy of which was obtained and substantiated by The Record — attempt to mitigate dangerous interactions. A violation of any of the 20 rules has consequences, often the disqualification of a player or an entire team.

For one, players must use Nerf blasters that discharge foam darts and are not supposed to modify the toy weapon.

Another rule lists areas and locations that are off-limits to game participants. They include school property, public buildings, religious sites, businesses where a participant works and homes without permission.

Rules also dictate players must inform their parents that they are participating in the game, so that “(the parents) don’t call the police on anyone.” Even threatening to call the police, whether a player or a parent, results in disqualification, the rules state.

Hiding, skulking and ambushing, though, are inherent to Paranoia — as the name suggests. Covert attacks on opponents, such as lying in wait in an unlocked car, are encouraged.

But the majority of the community isn’t in on the gambit.

A Winnetka woman and her friend experienced Paranoia firsthand on April 26.

Walking down Vernon Avenue after an evening out, the women stopped cold when across the street they saw a figure dressed in black lurking around one of their cars. He had something in his hand.

“He’s in the shadows, I couldn’t tell what age he was, he had a stocking cap on, he’s going back and forth on the driver’s side,” said one of the women, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation. “So yes, we were frightened. He was clearly doing something he shouldn’t be doing.”

After the initial shock, the two got a better look at the individual, specifically the object in his hand: a Nerf gun. In that moment, the local woman remembered a news article she read the previous week about a lockdown at Joseph Sears School and the teenage game of Paranoia. She told her out-of-town friend about it, and the two took a deep breath and watched the scene play out.

Eventually, the individual in black reportedly ran down the street and around the corner and they heard a girl scream “Don’t hurt me. Don’t do this.” The local woman said if she had not just learned about Paranoia, she would have called the police.

“There are so many chances for something to go severely wrong,” she said. “If my husband was with me, he would have ran up the road to help this girl. If someone was carrying a gun, they could have thought (the teen) had a gun. Our first thought was he was breaking into a car. Then we thought he was threatening a young person. Someone could see that and misinterpret what’s happening.”

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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