March 23 would have been Jack Servi’s 17th birthday if he had not passed away in August. 

Jack’s mother, Michelle Servi, said the way her son died was senseless and could have been preventable if she had known the symptoms of the teen fad that killed her son. It’s called the choking game, among other names, and it involves cutting off the air supply to the brain, causing a rush when oxygen is allowed back into the system and creating a temporary feeling of being high.

Because it involves no drugs, Servi said, it’s the “good kids’ high,” but it carries dangers every time it’s played.

The game kills brain cells, creating lasting damage and making it harder to concentrate, and carries a risk of death. In a 2008 guest article in The Star, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office said it’s estimated that between 250-1,000 kids ages 9-18 die from the choking game and related activities.

And that’s why Servi said she had to share Jack’s story: to spare other families the pain that hers has endured, and educate others about the symptoms.

“Unless you know what you’re looking at, and you have these facts, you can miss it like I did and end up burying your child,” she said.

Warning signs

Servi describes Jack as a bright kid. He was mechanically inclined, building his own gaming computer, bicycles and clutches, and he loved to play video games. A sophomore at Sun Prairie High School, he had never failed a class.

In the spring of 2016, Servi said she began to notice odd changes in Jack’s behavior and said his siblings, father and friends noticed them as well. He became irritable and rude. He seemed down, Servi said, though at the time Jack disliked his geometry class and was failing it. He started spending more time alone in his room, and when he would come out, she said his eyes would be bloodshot and he would behave as if he were high.

Servi said she asked Jack if he was using drugs, and he denied it.

“I believed him because he wasn’t a lying kid,” Servi said. “But I said, ‘well something’s going on here.’ But he wouldn’t tell me.”

One day she asked Jack how he got a red mark on his neck. He told her he fell while climbing a tree, she said. Jack would also explain his red eyes, saying his contacts were bothering him, and one week Servi said she had to get Jack prescription glasses because he couldn’t wear his contacts.

Despite Jack’s explanations, Servi was worried. She took him to a clinic in February – around the time when she had noticed the changes – where the doctor suggested getting Jack into counseling, chalking the odd behavior up to “teenage stuff,” Servi said.

Jack went to therapy two months later when the first appointment was available. Servi said she did all she could to help him during that time. She bought him a puppy to try and get him out of his room more.

Over the summer, Jack began to improve, Servi said. He made up his failed classes at summer school and was happier, Servi said. He got a job at McDonald’s, had just gotten his driver’s license and was looking for a car.

“He was doing better,” Servi said.

Jack died on August 19 at his father’s house (Servi is divorced from Jack’s father, whom she declined to include as a source for this story). As told to Servi, Jack had a belt suspended from the bunk bed in his room, and he was leaned into the belt on the floor. The official cause of death was ruled a suicide.

In the following weeks, through talking to friends about her son’s death, Servi found out about the choking game and became convinced that Jack had been playing it since the spring, and maybe before. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind, 110 percent, he was definitely doing it,” Servi said. “He was doing a teen fad that kids don’t realize that can kill you.”

Physical symptoms that someone may be playing the choking game include mood changes, depression, red or bloodshot eyes, marks on the neck, headaches and even concussions.

In hindsight, Servi said she remembers seeing luggage straps or neckties lying around Jack’s room. She would hear thuds in the house once in a while that, at the time, didn’t mean anything to her. The irritability, the red eyes and the times when Jack would be locked in his room with no answer – which at the time struck Servi simply as teenage rudeness – all added up to signal that Jack was playing the choking game.

She said she doesn’t think he was playing the choking game as much in the summer, but that it had become an addiction – one for which Jack never got treatment.

“He had every symptom, but I never knew the symptoms of it,” Servi said. “Nobody told me when I took him for a physical that this is something to look for in teenagers.”

Servi said she doesn’t blame anyone, including the doctors who saw Jack. She said doctors don’t always know to look for those symptoms, either.

“There are so many people that missed the boat with this kid,” Servi said. “It’s one of these things that’s slipping through the cracks.”

Spreading the word

After Jack’s death, Servi began to spread the word about the dangers of the choking game.

Servi said she feels that the high school missed teaching the dangers of it to her son. She wanted the high school to send all parents a brochure by choking game awareness group Games Adults Shouldn’t Play (GASP). She spoke with principal Keith Nerby. 

Nerby recalls the conversation, according to District Communications Officer Patti Lux-Weber, who added that students who need support or parents looking for help supporting their students can contact a school’s principal or support services. In response to the conversation with Servi, Lux-Weber said Nerby added that information to the school’s website, in a section for support services for families.

Type in “choking game” on the district’s website and a document containing a link appears, but Servi said the district never broadcasted the information to parents directly.

Servi herself told other parents in Sun Prairie about the game after Jack’s death, especially those whose kids she said were likely also playing the game. When she finally got access to Jack’s phone after his death, Servi said she found an online message thread where another Sun Prairie teen had posted a picture, to which Jack responded, of a white carousel horse implying to “ride the white pony,” meaning to get high.

Two days after Jack’s death, Servi said the teen who posted the photo of the white horse posted another comment: “I should have called the cops, man … I’m sorry.” The individual later deleted the comment, but Servi obtained a screen shot on Jack’s phone through the notification he had received for it. Servi said this is evidence that other teenagers knew what was happening, and were likely playing the game themselves.

Kids and teenagers often learn the game from friends at school, and when they become addicted to it and start playing alone at their homes, it becomes even more dangerous.

Dane County Deputy Sheriff Leslie Fox said it’s the way kids are playing the choking game now that makes it so dangerous. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office has, in the past, done department training and community presentations regarding the choking game, said Fox, who said it came about after a choking-game related death in Appleton.

The presentations caught on and built more interest around 2008, Fox said, including in some school districts. However, after demand for the sheriff’s office training on the game fizzled out, Fox said the department stopped offering them and focused instead on other high-demand topics.

When training is available, institutions such as schools can be reluctant to bring in information on dangerous behaviors.

“They don’t want to plant the seed and show kids something that they could do that’s not an illegal drug, but you can still get a high from it,” Fox said.

Fox said it’s important to give kids the facts about behaviors like the choking game, and for them to know it is dangerous. She added the information is already out there on the Internet and social media.

“It’s likely the kids already have an idea of what it is but they probably don’t know that it can be just as deadly as an illegal drug,” Fox said.

Sharron Grant, executive director of GASP, agreed that education about the dangers of the choking game is extremely important.

Grant said school-aged kids often already know about the game, offering an example: a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer who has helped GASP educate about the dangers of the choking game asks kids during his program if they know anything about the game. Grant said 75 percent of school-aged kids say they already know about it. However, only a quarter of parents say they know about the game. 

Grant started GASP in 2006 after her 12-year-old son died playing the choking game. She said if he had known the dangers of it, he never would have risked playing.

“It seems that the kids are learning it as a game, so they think it’s just something to play,” Grant said. “Risk-taking is really what they’re doing.”

Mislabeled deaths

GASP provides educational materials and tracks statistics related to the choking game on its website, GASP has tracked over 1000 incidents - either deaths or cases in which the individual recovered – that were determined to be caused by choking game since they began gathering their data.

Many of the deaths are simply ruled suicides, making it hard to know how many deaths the game has a hand in, and leading to underreporting of statistics.

Servi is currently fighting the ruling of suicide in Jack’s case, hoping to get it changed to accidental death. She said her son was not suicidal, that he was taking photos of his work schedule the day before he died, and was looking forward to his fall classes and starting his junior year.

“It’s not a suicide when you don’t leave a suicide note, you’re looking for a car, and you’re asking your parents to buy your favorite breakfast cereal that morning, and you’re happy,” Servi said.

Servi also got a letter from Jack’s clinic in support of reconsidering the official cause of death. That letter noted that the choking game is likely an underreported cause of death among youths, and outlined how the family was seeing improvements in Jack’s mental status and had found both physical and online evidence that the choking game was involved.

“They were just all really upset because they missed it,” Servi said of the doctors.

If she could go back in time and change something, Servi said she wouldn’t have locks on her children’s phones or on their bedroom doors. She wishes she would have known the symptoms of the choking game.

And, she said she hopes other kids who have played the game would be honest about their involvement so they could get help. Servi said she doesn’t want the kids to get in trouble, but rather to realize the game is a problem in the community.

“Just tell the truth so you can admit it, fix it and move on,” Servi said. “That would give me the greatest [sense] that something good came of something that was so horrible.”

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