Virtual reality violence too real to ignore

by Laura Edghill
Posted 9/21/13, 10:30 am

Police arrested a Louisiana high school student last week for posting a YouTube video of himself simulating the shooting of classmates using the augmented reality (AR) app “Real Strike.” 

The app works by overlaying a first-person shooter view that includes a choice of guns on what the player actually sees as they look through their smartphone’s camera. The synthesis of augmented and actual reality creates the illusion that the player is shooting at items he is viewing: In this case, the student’s classmates. The student recorded the episode and posted it on YouTube.

A parent who happened to see the video became concerned and contacted authorities. The local sheriff’s office arrested the student for “terrorizing and interference of the operation of a school.” 

A representative from the sheriff’s department said the student made the video because he was frustrated about being bullied at school, but the student said he has no violent plans. The student’s parents claim that he has no access to actual weapons.

But school officials can’t be too careful in responding to potential threats—real or perceived. They are frequently faced with the tension between a student’s First Amendment rights and protecting students in their care. Without a foolproof litmus test, schools typically err on the side of caution, and the courts generally uphold those decisions. 

In Missouri, a high school student made threats toward other classmates in an instant messaging conversation with another student. The friend was concerned and showed them to the principal, who expelled the student. Another high school student in Nevada exchanged numerous messages via text and MySpace with classmates that threatened Columbine-style violence at his school. His friends showed the messages to school administrators, who punished him with expulsion. A California seventh-grader posted a self-narrated original cartoon slideshow on YouTube that depicted her murdering her teacher with a knife. The teacher discovered the video and became physically ill in response. Administrators transferred the student to another school.

In all of these situations, the students displayed their violent fantasies in publicly. Most claimed they were just joking or letting off steam. But putting their ideas into a digital space leaves them not only open to public distribution but myriad interpretations of what they might have meant.

Because the Louisiana student publicly posted the video of his AR experience online, “this incident is indistinguishable from several others in which students played out violent fantasies against their schoolmates or teachers online,” said lawyer and social media blogger Brian Wassom. “Those students were also severely punished, because school violence is far too real these days to simply ignore such ominous messages.”

Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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