(McCORDSVILLE, Ind.) — Nine-year-old Isaiah Mitchell probably thought “the choking game” would be fun. It likely never occurred to the inquisitive McCordsville boy that it could be fatal.
Now his parents and neighbors are determined to alert other parents about the dangerous activity, widely known to children and teenagers but a complete mystery to many adults.
“It has been around,” said Jim Jones, a child and adolescent psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Methodist Hospital. “But it sounds like it’s starting to raise its ugly head again.”
And it appears to be reaching younger children, like Isaiah.
The game involves choking or strangling, manually or with a rope or belt, to the point of almost passing out, which children do thinking they’ll get a “rush” or feeling of being high.
A Web site aimed at educating parents and stopping the game lists more than 250 young people, the majority of them teenagers, who have died. A handful are younger than 10, like Isaiah. He used a belt and was inside a closet with the door closed. His mother found him Aug. 3.
Brenda and Johnin Mitchell are determined to make Isaiah’s death serve a purpose.
The Mitchells have four older sons — Jonathan, 12, Solomon, 14, and Anthony Frazier and James Mitchell, both 25. But now there’s an empty spot that Isaiah – the young athlete his father dreamed would attend the University of Notre Dame — had filled.
Their neighbors came together for an impromptu vigil Saturday. They have brought balloons, flowers and teddy bears to leave in the yard; they have donated money to help with the funeral.
Johnin Mitchell said he was overwhelmed with how the neighbors have embraced his family.
“This truly has become a community,” he said. “It was just a subdivision before Isaiah’s passing.”
“I don’t know if my son tried this before. I can’t tell you that. But he tried it this time, and he’s dead,” Mitchell said.
“I’m like any other parent. I want my baby back,” he said, choking back tears, in his family’s three-bedroom home in the McCordsville subdivision. “But that’s not going to happen.”
Hancock County Detective Jeffery Rasche, who is investigating Isaiah’s death, said he hadn’t heard about the choking game until Isaiah died.
Since then, Rasche has spoken with local juvenile investigators who have seen similar cases. He has learned that sometimes children “play” the game in pairs, even during school in bathroom stalls.
Some of his colleagues asked their middle and high school-age children and were shocked to learn their kids knew about it, Rasche said.
He has since learned that there are several Web sites, news media reports and an “Oprah Winfrey Show” episode about the issue.
But many parents are still in the dark, which is why Johnin Mitchell has printed thousands of fliers with his son’s smiling face, the heading “Attention Parents” and a brochure on the dangers of the game. It’s why he agreed to talk about what happened to his son.
Jones, the psychologist, said parents and educators should be careful but clear in discussing the choking game. Children already are talking about it, but they don’t have all the information they need, he said.
“They think they won’t get hurt when they’re choking themselves, whether it be by hand or a rope,” he said. “I think you can be gentle, but you have to be direct. You spell it out for them.”
The Mitchells buried Isaiah in Wisconsin, where Johnin Mitchell is from, on the same day their son would have begun the fourth grade at Mount Comfort Elementary School.
Instead, his classmates ended the first day of the school year with a memorial service and schoolwide assembly on the choking game.
Principal Phil Davis said he was still consulting with educators and counselors on the program. He wants to make sure children know what happened and that Isaiah died because he didn’t know enough.
As part of this school year’s “life skills” theme, Davis intends to tell the children: “You do not put anything around your neck that could keep you from breathing.”
In 22 years in law enforcement, Rasche has seen young people take plenty of risks, from speeding in cars to “huffing” paint. The choking game was new to him.
“What scares me the most about this was that nobody knew about this except the kids,” he said.
Johnin Mitchell wants to change that. His message to other parents: “I don’t want you to be me.”
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)