By STEPHANIE HOOPS
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
December 20, 2005
"I have firsthand knowledge that it's happening in Camarillo," said Kara Partridge, chief information officer for the Camarillo Health Care District and a member of a newly formed committee that is dealing with the choking-game problem.
A Camarillo teen knew exactly what the choking game was when Partridge asked her about it.
"Her exact words to me when I asked her about the choking game were: 'Oh yeah, we do that. We know how to do that. That's so cool.' "
The choking game - also known as the "fainting game," "passing-out game," "funky chicken" and "space monkey" - involves putting pressure on the chest or neck to cut off the oxygen to the brain. It causes a rush but also can cause sudden death, brain damage and injuries from falls when a player passes out.
Playing the choking game at preteen social events is nothing new. Ask 40-year-old adults if they remember it and many do.
Partridge, 41, played it.
"You would simply hyperventilate and get a rush," she said.
Julie Rosenbluth of the American Council for Drug Education said teens have put a new twist on the game, and are taking it home after socializing.
"What's new," Rosenbluth said, "is they're doing it alone. Using belts, ligatures, as far as I know."
Solitary play is dangerous because a rope or belt can't let up on the choking before it's too late, the way a friend can, although playing with others also is dangerous.
While nothing official has been reported in Camarillo, parents have expressed concerns about the game to Police Chief Mike Lewis.
"I've been having parents ask me: 'Are you aware of this? Is (my son) making this up or is this going on?' " Lewis said.
Thousand Oaks Police Commander Dennis Carpenter plans to discuss the choking game with schools in his jurisdiction. He heard about it last week at a meeting where Lewis spoke.
"We haven't done anything yet," he said. "We haven't had a chance to meet with the schools yet."
The Ventura Police Department and Simi Valley Police Department haven't heard of the choking game.
"This is the first I've heard about it," said Simi Police spokesman Sgt. Dave Livingstone. "We'd probably contact Camarillo if we start having similar reports."
When the October death of a 14-year-old Tarzana girl, Sasha Sepasi, hit the news, Lewis decided to get proactive and organized a committee. Recently the group - which consists of Partridge and Lewis; Thomas Dase, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley School District; and Ron Fisher, assistant principal at Camarillo High School - had its first meeting.
"We are drafting an information piece," Lewis said.
Sepasi was a student at the private Viewpoint School in Calabasas where she was an honor student, athlete and artist. She died in her walk-in closet with a belt around her neck.
Sasha was, by all accounts, emotionally healthy and well-adjusted, just the type of teenager experts say is likely to play the choking game.
"They're good kids," Rosenbluth said. "They're close to their parents, have good relationships and are doing it because it's a drug-free high. It feels good. It doesn't carry the same stigma as drug abuse, and they have been taught that drugs are bad."
The most frequently observed players are from 9 to 14 years old.
"The speculation is that before they're out with the freedom to do more things and with access to alcohol and marijuana, they're using something they can control and don't have to procure," Lewis said.
It's natural for children to want to get high, Rosenbluth said, but parents need to talk to them about safe ways of doing it.
"There are other ways to get that rush," she said. "Extreme sports, giving a speech, trying out for a play. These are all the same kinds of things that can give you that good feeling."
Partridge said adults need to impress upon kids that their efforts to get a head rush have gone too far.
"I don't know if educating the children would work as well as educating the parents so they know what happens at sleepovers and stuff," she said.
It is unclear whether the choking game has entered the media because kids have just begun dying from playing it alone or that medical examiners are beginning to identify it.
"Coroners offices call these suicides, and it's not right," said Kamelia Sepasi, the mother of the Tarzana girl who died.
Dr. Thomas Andrew, New Hampshire's chief medical examiner, has been speaking around the country at seminars put on by the National Association of Medical Examiners about coroners being slow to recognize the phenomenon.
Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ronald O'Halloran said he did not attend a recent Los Angeles conference of medical examiners addressing that issue. He added that no deaths attributed to asphyxiant games have occurred in the county during the 20 years he's been with the office.
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