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Dangerous ‘polar plunge’ trend causes concern for N.H. school districts

Last modified: 4/10/2014 8:36:34 AM
Students plunge into an icy pond or river and then post videos of the frigid dips on social media to “call out” high school classmates to follow suit.

These “polar plunge” videos circulating on the Facebook and Twitter accounts of local students have prompted New Hampshire school administrators to alert parents to the popular and potentially dangerous trend.

“This could have that life-or-death element to it. I just hope the fad passes,” said John House-Myers, principal at Bow High School.

An anonymous parent tipped off Bow administrators last week to students posting online videos of their plunges. About 20 Bow students were shown in the videos, which can be used to call out or dare other students to take the plunge.

Administrators say students have likened the plunge to a senior prank, and have said it’s meant to be a fun activity.

When House-Myers asked why kids were doing the plunge, one student responded, “We’re kids. What do you expect?”

Jumping into the Merrimack or Contoocook rivers isn’t illegal, and students weren’t misbehaving on school property or during school hours. But, because of the potential of bullying and peer pressure and concerns about student safety, House-Myers notified parents and other school districts last Thursday.

“I sent out something on the New Hampshire principals’ Listserv, and I got a ton of responses,” he said. “A couple of people knew about it; others said they didn’t.”

By Friday afternoon, similar announcements had gone out to parents at Concord, Goffstown, John Stark and Hopkinton high schools.

The so-called plunge is not affiliated with the Penguin Plunge, an annual charity event for the Special Olympics, or any other sanctioned plunge.

Concord High School Principal Gene Connolly thought charity was involved when he overheard talk of the plunge. “Then I learned there weren’t going to be any EMTs on the sideline and this could potentially be very dangerous,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit on this. As a school leader, our first concern is student safety.”

At Bow, teachers have talked with students about the danger of plunging and peer pressure, House-Myers said. “I know kids are continuing to do it,” he said. “I think the unintended consequence of some of the scrutiny is some of the kids might be jumping in late at night.”

A Goffstown High School student cut her knee doing the plunge, but serious injury has to this point been avoided.

“We have not responded to anything directly related to the plunge,” said Concord police Lt. Timothy O’Malley. “We are aware of the advisory. Obviously, it sounds concerning. We would certainly discourage this type of behavior.”

“We have experiences (of) people drowning in the Merrimack River in the best of conditions,” O’Malley said.

Students may be doing the plunge for fun, but the potential for danger is real, said Bow fire Capt. Mitchell Harrington.

“It seems like a new fad. We’re aware of it. We’re concerned about it, and we’re trained to respond to it,” Harrington said.

Most students aren’t aware of mammalian diving reflex, the body’s natural response to exposure to cold water, he said. In order to conserve energy for survival, blood flow to extremities is stunted and the heart rate increases. “You think you can jump in the cold water and swim to the edge of the river like you do in the summer, but you have that sense of paralyzation,” Harrington said. “The cold changes everything.”

Melting snow and recent rains have increased the water levels and the speed of currents in local streams and rivers, said Goffstown fire Lt. Bill Connor. Deteriorating surface ice and underwater hazards contribute to the danger. “The fast-moving water can lead to bodily injury and drowning, while exposure to the extremely cold water can result in severe cramping, hypothermia, disorientation and respiratory distress, all of which can also lead to drowning,” he said.

Word of the plunge reached Goffstown Superintendent Brian Balke on Friday. Since then, he’s heard from staff members who have seen videos and one parent who said their child had done the plunge. Goffstown’s notification went home Friday. “Any use of social media that is creating unnecessary peer pressure that could be interpreted as bullying, hazing or harassment is not acceptable in our school district,” Balke said.

The plunge is ongoing, House-Myers said. “I think the videos are shot and posted continuously, according to the frequency of the ‘plungers,’ ” he wrote in an email.

Social media has largely driven the trend, which for weeks was not on the radar of school leaders. “You can start a trend like this very quickly, and it jumps exponentially. I think that’s exactly what’s happening here,” House-Myers said.

Amended bullying laws passed in 2010 include language specifically for cyberbullying and also have a provision allowing school districts to intervene if off-campus activities or bullying spill into school.

“If kids are tweeting about this and putting information about this on their Facebook pages and creating this sort of peer pressure, there could be that carry over,” Balke said. “The idea is that when kids are posting videos they are calling out other kids. Is it possible to interpret that there is a potential harassment to that? I think, potentially, yes.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)


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