THOMPSON FALLS - An alleged "choking game" incident in an unsupervised locker room at Thompson Falls Junior High School seriously injured one student and is being investigated as a possible assault, school officials acknowledged this week.
It also has caused an uproar among some parents who say other youths have been threatened, bullied and physically abused at or near the school in recent months.
"My son almost died," said Shane Barnes, father of the seventh-grade boy who was the victim of the alleged Nov. 21 assault.
Barnes said his son was grabbed by another boy without warning after a gym class, squeezed and choked until he lost consciousness and dropped to the floor. The boy lost seven teeth, had both sides of his jaw broken and required 16 stitches afterward.
Barnes said his son was not a willing participant in the so-called "choking game," and he viewed the matter as an unprovoked assault.
Medical bills already have exceeded $11,000, Barnes said, and the oral surgeon's bill has not yet arrived. He said he intends to seek redress from the school district for the medical expenses because of a lack of supervision in the locker room where the incident occurred.
Another parent, Kimberly Keller, said her son has repeatedly been bullied by another youth at the school.
She and her father have reported the bullying to school officials and Thompson Falls police, and she is unsatisfied with the result. Keller has withdrawn her child from school and recently received a restraining order from a district court judge against the other youth.
Keller's father, William Keller of Thompson Falls, wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the bullying to the Sanders County Ledger, which coincidentally was published the same week as Barnes allegedly was assaulted.
"I have taken my grandson to the medical clinic and finally to the hospital for headaches that were caused by an out-of-control boy in the junior high who slammed his head into the wall. This has happened at least three or four times a month. Something needs to be done by somebody," Keller wrote in his letter to the editor.
Thompson Falls Superintendent Jerry Pauli said Tuesday the school board and administration are taking the allegations of violence seriously and will investigate all complaints brought to their attention.
The Kellers' allegations were looked into, Pauli said, but were not corroborated by other evidence or witnesses and many of the alleged incidents did not occur at school.
Pauli said he has asked the Kellers to document in writing their specific complaints regarding incidents that occurred at the school, rather than at home or elsewhere off of school property, but they have yet to do so.
The choking incident, however, has caused the school board and administration to assess the degree of bullying that occurs at the school, Pauli said.
On Nov. 22, the day after Barnes' son was injured, the school district sent a letter home to all parents warning that "some of our students are engaging in a practice they know as the 'choking game.' "
The letter warned parents to watch for indications their children are participating in the dangerous and potentially fatal practice, including severe headaches, marks on the neck, bloodshot or red eyes, raspy breath, belts, bats and ties around the house and an "unusual need for privacy."
According to Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia, the choking game is not a game in the traditional sense, but a method of self-asphyxiation whereby a person cuts off the supply of oxygen to the brain for a "rush" or "high." Knowledge of the activity has been passed around schoolyards since at least the 1980s. It is also known as the "passing-out game," "murphing" or "morphing," and "space monkey."
The school board met Monday to discuss bullying, supervision of students and choking instances at Thompson Falls schools.
Several parents attended, including Shane Barnes and the Kellers.
At the meeting, the main issue for parents was supervision in the junior high locker room, where Barnes' son allegedly was assaulted.
Pauli said most school districts of comparable size in western Montana do not have teachers supervising both boys' and girls' locker rooms during the five to 10 minutes before and after gym classes.
In comparable districts "it appears that most schools provide one teacher who waits in the gym area or assigned area while students change and report for class," he said.
He based his report on a telephone survey he did of 10 smaller western Montana school districts last week.
"In an ideal world, we would have much more staff," Pauli said Tuesday. "For a small school district, we're doing what everybody else is. We have one teacher who has to supervise both locker rooms and the area students are going to."
Administrators from the elementary, junior high and high schools said at the meeting Monday that violence historically has been rare at Thompson Falls schools.
At the meeting, Pauli also presented the results of several student surveys that he said indicate a higher percentage of Thompson Falls students feel safe at school than do students surveyed at other Montana schools.
Pauli told the Missoulian the school district cannot afford to hire an extra teacher or an aide to supervise students in both the boys' and girls' locker rooms before and after gym classes. But an arrangement might be made to divide the students by gender and send girls' gym classes to the high school, where a female gym teacher was available to supervise them in the locker room, while the boys stay at the junior high campus, where a male gym teacher could be present in the their locker room.
Barnes said Wednesday that this would be better than no action.
"It would be a good temporary solution until they find out what they could do for the long term," he said.
As for Barnes' assessment of Monday's school board meeting, "There were a lot of good ideas that were brought up but overall it didn't get us toward any solution," he said.
The board will meet again Thursday night to decide whether to suspend or expel the student who perpetrated the choking game incident against Barnes' son.
The student in question has been removed from school pending a decision by the board.
The matter also is being investigated by a law enforcement officer assigned to the school district.
Sanders County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Barb Monaco said Wednesday she had not yet received the investigator's report, so she could not say if any criminal charges would be filed against the boy or if other youth court action would be taken against him. His identity will only become public if he is charged with a crime, such as assault, that if committed by an adult would be a felony.
Meanwhile, Pauli said he will ask the junior high and high school student councils to look into the issues of bullying and choking, to get students' perspective, and he will refer parents to the parent-teacher organization.
He said the district has signed a contract with consultants to provide ongoing staff development on bullying, violence and anger issues. The program is called "Love and Logic," and generally was praised at Monday's meeting by parents and a private therapist who were familiar with it from other school districts.
Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org