Dana Ziemniak has been fighting for years to make sure her son Evan’s story is told—and known by all parents.
Despite being brushed aside by the local school district, it’s become her life’s mission to spread the word about the reason and cause behind her son’s death—a terrifying and disturbing trend called the “Choking Game” or “Pass-Out Challenge” encouraged by bullies.
Note: This story contains sensitive material and may be disturbing to some readers.
According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, one out of every five (20.2%) students have reported being bullied. Additionally, “49.8% of tweens (9 to 12 years old) said they experienced bullying at school and 14.5% of tweens shared they experienced bullying online”.
Those statistics are, of course, shocking, but sadly, they are true. A higher percentage of male students report being physically bullied—and it’s something that 12-year-old Evan Ziemniak experienced at school on a regular basis, along with verbal bullying.
Evan Ziemniak was a 6th grader at West Allegheny Middle School in Imperial, Pennsylvania in 2016 when he was bullied into participating in a dangerous “Choking Challenge” that has shockingly been around for decades.
“It started off with (the bully) calling him names or picking on him. In the cafeteria, (the bully) would throw things at him,” Dana Ziemniak told a local CBS affiliate.
Evan was a sweet, loving boy who also dealt with anxiety, ADHD, and high-functioning autism. It was difficult for him to sometimes understand social cues. Coming home from school, Evan would tell his mom about the constant bullying, and although she tried to help, the bullying would continue—even resulting in him being stabbed with a pencil on the school bus.
In addition to the physical bullying, Evan was verbally abused as well—even encouraged to participate in a “game” that tragically took his life.
Dana Ziemniak told the heartbreaking story when she wrote in to Love What Matters:
“It was the Wednesday before Easter break, and the kids had a half day of school. Evan was twelve and in sixth grade, and Ava was six and in kindergarten. Evan got home first and was upset about a disagreement he had with a friend earlier at school. We sat down on the couch and talked about it. He always told me everything, until this day. We talked about what we were going to do over Easter break and about celebrating his cat’s second birthday. We were making plans and he seemed to be in better spirits.
He told me he and his friends made plans on the bus to play after school. He ran upstairs for a few minutes and ran downstairs, pointing out a watch he was wearing. He said he found it in his room and decided to wear it. He then took off out the front door to his friend’s house. By this time, my daughter got home and we went upstairs. I heard my son open the door and he yelled up, saying they weren’t home and he was confused because they had just talked about playing.
I heard him go into the garage and then he came in and yelled upstairs that he was going to go play at the tree stand. It was in a small, wooded area behind the neighbor’s house. He played there often, so I didn’t think anything of it. A little while later, my daughter headed out to her friend’s house to play, two doors up. I walked out back and called for Evan but he didn’t answer. I thought maybe he ran down the street to see if his friends were home.
I went back inside and did a few things and then went back out. I called for him again and still no answer. I saw my daughter playing outside and walked over to ask if she had seen Evan. She said he was just running around in the backyard and then took off back into the woods. My neighbor was outside so we chatted for about ten minutes or so. On the way back home I stopped at the back of the yard and called for him again. I could see the tree stand but didn’t see him.
I decided to run back inside and throw a pizza in the oven. He had parkour that evening, so I wanted to make a quick dinner before we went. He still wasn’t answering and I was worried at this point, so I walked into the woods and I saw him kneeling next to the tree. He wasn’t answering me, and as I got closer I saw the rope. I grabbed him and picked him up and started screaming for help. I remembered I had my phone so I called 911. I didn’t know what he had done, but it wasn’t good.
The ambulance and police finally arrived. As they pulled him from my arms I fell to the ground. I can still feel the leaves sticking to my wet face. The detective dragged me to the house and I stopped at the bottom step of the deck and started calling my husband but I couldn’t get through. I called my aunt and uncle to come over and then a family friend to get my daughter. They wouldn’t let me near my son and dragged me inside.
I knew it wasn’t good…I knew he wasn’t breathing and he wasn’t getting oxygen…and I knew what that meant. I don’t honestly know how much time had passed, but my uncle left in the ambulance with my son and my neighbor drove me to the hospital where I met my husband. The doctor was crying and he said they were doing everything they could, but his heart never started. He asked for permission to stop working on him, as by now he’d be brain dead.
They let my husband see him but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to see what they were doing. When they finished they brought him to us. At this point we thought he had died by suicide. We didn’t understand. He wasn’t suicidal. He came home upset, and he had been having issues with bullies and the school, but we were meeting with the school. Things were getting better. We were making plans. Suicide did not make sense, but we didn’t know what else it could be.
The coroner’s office called to say his cause of death was suicide. I still remember the call. I wanted to say that can’t be right, but I couldn’t get the words out. I was completely devastated. My sweet boy was gone. My husband and I started researching what else could’ve happened. We were obsessed and wouldn’t stop until we found answers. We came across something called the choking game/pass out challenge. It resembles suicide, but it’s not…it’s one of those deadly internet challenges that are all over YouTube.”
Devastated, shocked, and confused, Dana requested that the Medical Examiner perform a psychological autopsy.
After further investigation, the Medical Examiner agreed that Evan’s death was, in fact, an accident, and his cause of death was changed to accidental asphyxiation. Doing her own research, Dana had come across the disturbing challenge and learned that it was circulating around the middle school. In fact, Evan’s bullies had dared him to do it the day before he died.
According to Wikipedia, “the choking game (also known as the fainting game, the Good Kids high and a wide variety of slang terms) refers to intentionally cutting off oxygen to the brain with the goal of inducing temporary loss of consciousness and euphoria. The ‘challenge’ is often done due to “peer pressure, a challenge or dare, a rite of passage into a social group”.
Knowing that this ‘challenge’ was a topic at the middle school, Dana immediately wanted to alert other parents—but the West Allegheny School District brushed her off, saying it was an isolated incident.
“In fact, they sent an email to the entire district, without our knowledge or approval, stating our son died by suicide, which can be the result of a mental health disorder. Our son had ADHD, anxiety, and high-functioning autism, but he was not suicidal. To this day, the school refuses to allow any of his classmates to do anything for him at school in memory of him, though they have done things for students who passed away after him.
We found out students were still doing it and showing videos to kids during school. This game has been around for over 50 years, but has become more prevalent with social media and YouTube. This is not a game at all, but it is presented to the kids as such. Children as young as six years old have died from this, but the average age is 9-16 years old. Please talk to your kids about the dangers.
Cutting off the flow of oxygen can lead to brain damage and death. After a few seconds without oxygen, you will pass out. After four minutes, brain damage and death occur. I believe my son was planning on doing this with his friends but decided to try it on his own since they weren’t home. He was using the watch to try to time himself, but he passed out sooner than he thought. I had never heard of this before, so I couldn’t talk to him about the dangers.”
Now, 4 years later, Dana is still trying to get the school district to take responsibility and to spread awareness about bullying and this horrific ‘game’.
“I am sharing his story so others will have the chance to talk to their children, and so other parents will not have to suffer the pain of child loss. It’s important to know no child is immune to this. I never would’ve imagined I’d lose a child, let alone to this. Evan was smart, kind, and caring but even smart kids can make bad choices. I know he’d want me to share his story and save lives. Evan was a good kid…he just made a bad choice.”
It’s Evan’s story that she hopes will resonate and make a difference in preventing other kids from being bullied and/or participating in this challenge. She wants parents to also use every single resource necessary to help put an end to bullying—including therapists, police, and legislators. Students can help one another too:
“Go to your teacher. Go to the principal and tell them what you saw…Stick up for that other child who maybe can’t stick up for themselves,” she insists.
It’s crucial that you talk to your children about bullying and it’s imperative that every parent be aware of this “choking challenge”.
Evan’s short life was not in vain and Dana Ziemniak, along with her family, will continue to fight. If you need help talking to your children about bullying and its potentially tragic consequences, visit PACER.org.
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