Jennifer Steele doesn’t feel very strong. She doesn’t feel brave for speaking out about her 14-year-old son’s death from the “choking game” earlier this summer.
What she feels is grief and pain and heartache, four months later.
Halloween and Christmas and the holidays are coming soon, and the Steele family can only brace themselves for an emotional few months.
“Memories of him dressing up in Halloween costumes flood my mind,” said Steele, who found her son, Carson, lying in his room after playing the game. “We’re gearing up for a hard couple of months.”
Just a week before Carson’s death on June 18, he and his twin brother Alex had celebrated their 14th birthday.
In the “choking game,” youths cut off their airwaves, using a belt, rope or some other form of pressure on the neck, in an attempt to get a sense of euphoria. The game claimed the life of another York County child earlier this year.
Officials say the game can be played with scarves, belts, neckties or a variety of other objects that can be tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages parents, educators and health-care providers to familiarize themselves with signs of the game. Those may include discussion of the game, bloodshot eyes or marks on the neck.
“You don’t want to walk in your child’s room and open the closet and find them,” said Steele. “The way we found our son, that’s an image I can never unsee. It’s in my mind forever.”
Indian Land’s Garrett Pope Jr. died while playing the game in late August.
The families of both victims will speak at an educational forum this week about the phenomenon. The event will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill.
The forum is hosted by the York County Coroner’s Office, which teamed up with local school districts to offer the program.
Officials say education for parents is critical to preventing future deaths.
“If one parent comes and we’re able to fill them with information, and it keeps their child safe from this activity, that’s a success,” said Mychal Frost, director of communications for Rock Hill Schools.
The Herald’s story on Pope reached a nationwide audience as the local community mourned.
But fewer people knew about Carson, a history buff and Taekwondo enthusiast just two notches shy of a black belt.
Carson was bound for Rock Hill High after finishing his final year at Castle Heights Middle School. He was “an old soul,” according to his mother, who said he could carry on a conversation with anyone he met.
Earlier this year, Carson told his mother that he wanted to serve his country by joining the Marines when he finished high school.
That’s why she can’t wrap her head around how Carson became interested in the “game.” She says she and her husband, Rick, believe Carson may have learned about it online, either from a friend or just by chance.
Jennifer said officials recovered videos that Carson had recorded of himself doing the “choking game,” she said, which leads her to believe he was being challenged by others.
“Because of the age group that this happens to, middle school, high school, teenagers,” Steele said. “They’re at this age where they think nothing will happen to them. ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ve got this.’ That’s the mindset that most teenagers have.”
And it can happen to anyone, she said.
Previous victims of the game have been reported to have tied ropes around their neck or to have asphyxiated themselves with a towel or dog collar. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a 2008 study that the game may also be known as “the blackout game,” “pass-out game,” “scarf game,” or other names.
Thursday’s event will feature noted expert Judy Rogg, the founder of Erik’s Cause, a California-based non-profit organization committed to eduating parents about the “game.” Rogg created the organization after her 12-year-old son, Erik Robinson, died from the game in 2010.
Both the Pope and Steele families said they knew little about the game, but have since come to learn that it has affected hundreds of children throughout the world.
“If you talk to your kids and they said they don’t know about it, don’t stop there,” Stacy Pope said earlier this summer. “You educate them on what it is, it’s not a game and it can kill you.”
The families will publicly tell their stories this week, with representatives from the Rock Hill, York, Clover and Fort Mill school districts.
The hope is that parents will absorb the information, talk about the risks and dangers with their kids, and feel more involved in their activities. Steele said she has been made aware of thousands of online videos that not only teach teenagers how to play the game, but also show them how to avoid getting caught by telling them to delete their browser history.
The Steele family wants to speak publicly so other families can understand that the “game” hits close to home, even in Rock Hill.
If Jennifer could give any lesson to a child who is considering the game, she’d tell them to leave his or her room and spend time with others.
“It’s just a ticking time bomb,” she said. “It’s something that’s going to go horribly wrong. Life is too short, and kids that age, we should encourage them to get of their rooms more, and they’d forget about all that.”
Alex Steele, Carson’s twin brother, says he hopes that kids his age understand how dangerous the “game” can be, especially for those who play alone.
“The message is you want to remember Carson,” said Alex. “That they remember it’s dangerous, don’t try it. It could be your last day on Earth.”
Want to go?
There will be an educational program on the “Choking Game” 7 p.m. Thursday at Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill.