Game causes teen’s death

Urbana High student, 15, dies following ‘choking game,’ according to friends

Thursday, March 23, 2006

To read the full text of the letter to parents Urbana High school sent, click here.

An Urbana family is grieving the loss of a teenage son who died last week while playing what is known as a ‘‘choking game.”

The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the March 14 death of William ‘‘Billy” Bowen Jr., 15, as accidental, but is releasing no further details.

According to the Rev. Matt Poole, who is speaking on behalf of the Bowen family, Billy was an intelligent, friendly young man who was active in his church and school.

But Poole, pastor of FaithPoint United Methodist Church in Urbana, said no matter how smart someone is, everyone is bound to make mistakes.

‘‘The easiest thing to do is point a finger or blame someone, and I don’t think that [the family is] trying to put fault on anyone,” he said Wednesday. ‘‘The family said this was his decision, no one else could have done anything.”

Billy was active in school clubs and the FaithPoint youth group, where he was passionate about raising money for charity. Poole said Billy and his friends participated in a 30-hour fast recently to raise money and awareness of poverty in parts of Africa.

The young man also loved the outdoors and was on track to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.

Poole presided over Billy’s funeral on Saturday, held at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Ijamsville. A large crowd gathered to pay respects.

‘‘During the service I gave several messages, but really that nobody is immune to tragedy,” Poole said, adding that it’s a tough, but important lesson for teenagers to learn.

‘Choking game’

Choking games have many names, including Blackout, Pass Out, Space Face and others. Essentially, participants cut off oxygen to their brains by choking themselves or having someone else choke them. Signs that a child may be participating in such a game include: bruises on the neck, bloodshot eyes, frequent headaches or spending more time in solitude. For information, visit www.deadlygameschildren

‘‘He was a smart guy, a bright guy, an intelligent guy,” Poole said. ‘‘He thought he was being smart and being safe and made a mistake.”

So many teenagers, he said, have the instinct to take risks. ‘‘I think we all need to practice the saying ‘I think I could be wrong,’ more often.”

Dr. Thomas Andrews, a pediatrician and New Hampshire’s chief medical examiner, has spoken out about choking games for years.

‘‘The victim is typically high achieving, an active and well-oriented person,” he told The Gazette this week. ‘‘They can be deceived into thinking this is an alcohol-free, drug-free high and can be led to think this way by Web sites or other kids.”

Andrews said the ‘‘game” takes many forms. Essentially, oxygen is cut off from the brain through choking, and the participant feels lightheaded as a result. Some participants choke another person or put pressure on their chest to cut the flow of air, while others rig ligatures, such as a belt or rope, and do it alone.

When pressure is released, he said, blood and air pound back into the head creating a different ‘‘rush” sensation.

The behavior is risky, he said, because it can result in damage to the eyes, injury from falling or collapsing, permanent brain and organ damage or death.

Marita Loose, Frederick County Public Schools spokeswoman, said Bowen’s death raised residual sadness over the deaths of two other Urbana students this school year. She urged parents to talk to their children about the risks and consequences of the ‘‘game.”

Urbana High School guidance counselors sent a letter home to parents on Tuesday about the details and warning signs of the game.

‘‘There is little evidence that this behavior is the result of depression or is necessarily the realm of students who are experiencing psychological difficulties,” the letter states.

Poole said the Bowen family is primarily concerned that other children in the community may hurt themselves this way. The family took the opportunity to educate those gathered at Billy’s funeral with pamphlets and handouts with information about choking games.

The FaithPoint community rallied around the family and each other last week.

On Wednesday night, members of the youth group gathered to talk about choking games and their friend’s untimely death.

‘‘I encouraged them to be leaders in their community rather than followers,” Poole said. ‘‘We encouraged them all not to let this keep going on. Peer leadership is what’s needed for these guys.”

In the future, he said, the church would honor Billy’s memory with fundraisers to fight African poverty. The church created a special fund for those efforts called the Bill Bowen Memorial Fund.

Questions about the fund may be directed to FaithPoint church at 301-473-7181.