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San Juan Island school officials warn: Asphyxiation 'game' is no game
In his career as an educator, Rick Thompson has stopped scuffles and broken up fights. He's grappled with student curiosity about huffing and sniffing glue.
But the superintendent of San Juan Island public schools never thought he'd have to contend with students trying the "Choking Game," the object of which is to stop blood flow to the brain until the player passes out.
"I don't think it's uncommon," Thompson said. "But what some kids might think is a game can turn dangerous."
The game indeed turned dangerous on Monday at Friday Harbor Middle School, when a student passed out and was treated by paramedics and taken to Inter Island Medical Center.
Friday Harbor Middle and High School Principal Fred Woods said the incident occurred in the band room, and that the participants are "the best of friends." The boy administering the choke hold received in-school suspension for a day and work detail.
In a letter to middle school parents, Woods and Dean of Students Rod Turnbull described what happened as "an action where one student chokes another attempting to get the sensation of 'almost' passing out." They recommended parents talk to their children about the dangers of choking, and said students who participate in choking games will be disciplined.
Tuesday morning, Sheriff Bill Cumming and Paramedic Ryan Nelson spoke to the student body about what happens to the body when a "sleeper hold" is applied.
"The good news is that the student who was taken to the clinic is fine and will be back in school today," Woods and Turnbull wrote, but they warned, "Many students have reported this 'game' takes place often in other locations where friends get together."
"The game has been happening even more so off-campus," Woods told The Journal on Wednesday. "This was more about getting the student body to understand the dangers of this. I'm concerned about it happening beyond here."
Woods said he first saw a choking game played in a school about 20 years ago, and that this is the third school where he's seen it happen in his career.
"I don't know if it goes in waves — that there's a new group of kids who hear about it — or that we don't see it because it's done elsewhere." He said the "rumor mill" is that 10 or more current students have played a choking game on San Juan Island.
According to the DB Foundation, a non-profit that promotes education about risky adolescent behavior, there have been 523 deaths and 52 injuries in the United States attributed to choking games since 1974.
The foundation maintains a database of victims. There's Tom, a 12-year-old Boy Scout who loved animals and played in his church's handbell choir; he would have been 45 this year. There's Colin, described by his family as a "loving, playful" 13-year-old who played cello and guitar and had plans for his future. David, 16, loved working on his family's farm, trained horses and was an apprentice cabinetmaker. Nicole Ann, 13, loved her friends and the beach, and was involved in band, cheerleading, choir, roller skating, swimming and volleyball. Alexandria, 14, was a "fun loving, very forgiving and easygoing person" who had plans to become a veterinarian. Sean, 16, was described as a "smart, funny kid" with a bright future who "did not do drugs and probably thought this was safe."
"(It) has been attracting, injuring and killing teens for generations," the foundation reported on its website. "There are no definitive personality traits of a participant. Some are high achievers playing out of curiosity, others are seeking an alternative to drug use."
The Choking Game is known by several names, according to the foundation, among them Elevator, Pass out, Hangman, Tap Out, Blackout, and Flatliner. Choking isn't always required. "The name is what teens have dubbed a variety of methods of oxygen deprivation to achieve a rush, thrill, or high ... When played in a group, the Choking Game carries risks of seizure, memory loss, broken bones, concussions and potentially death. Playing alone drastically increases the likelihood of severe permanent brain damage and death."
The foundation added, "The prevalence of teens knowing about and engaging in this risky behavior is far greater than the level of proactive preventative education. Until there is mainstreamed education and awareness, teens will continue to perceive there is minimal danger and that, according to them, 'It's just like fainting.'"