A gifted student and a soccer star, Colin Russell, 13, finished his homework, played with his dog and delved into a novel one afternoon this September. After dinner that evening, the Tacoma, Wash., eighth grader, whose mother and father are physicians, stepped into his bedroom closet, put a rope around his neck, tightened it and strangled to death.
This was no suicide. Colin was playing a "pass out" game that has become frighteningly common around the country. Children, usually of middle-school age, choke themselves with a rope or belt, or have someone else do it, and then loosen the grip as they begin to lose consciousness--triggering a head rush they regard as an innocent, drug-free buzz. Kids know it by many names: Space Monkey, Knockout, Black Hole, the Choking Game.
Alarmed by the scores of children who have died or become brain-damaged by this practice, schools around the country are sounding alarms to parents and teachers to watch for signs of the game, such as red eyes or bruises on a child's neck. "There is very little in the medical literature at this point," says Colin's mom, Dr. Trish Russell, who had never heard of the game until the night her son died.
The Tacoma schools, which held informational meetings with parents after Colin's death, plan to train teachers about the practice. Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb, Ill., included a note in its September newsletter to parents alerting them to the game and asking them to speak to their children about its dangers. In Nampa, Idaho, the mother of a 13-year-old girl who died playing the game in August has spoken with students in the town to warn them about it--and found that most of them were already quite familiar with it. In North Berwick, Maine, where a 17-year-old developmentally disabled student died playing the game in September, a notice was posted on the Noble High School Web site listing the warning signs.
The practice has conjured comparisons to autoerotic asphyxiation--masturbating while being choked--except that it's usually done without any sexual component, and practiced by the very young. A chat room has formed for kids to talk about the game and spread the word about its deadly risks. The mother of an 11-year-old victim of the game has started PLAY (Parents/Professionals Learning About Accidental Asphyxia Among Youth) to push for more awareness.
Meanwhile, a Web site--stop-the-choking-game.com--recently emerged, listing the names of more than 50 kids who, it claims, accidentally killed themselves in the past year playing the game. The site was created by the grandmother of a 13-year-old boy who died of playing it. "Something that seems so obviously dangerous to most adults," says Colin's mom, "seems like fun and safe to these kids."