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Schools cool to teen 'polar plunge' dare

A quick, all-under dip into the frigid waters of early spring has become something of a rage among high school students at ponds, lakes and rivers around the state, exhilarating the teens and drawing an icy reaction from adults.

It's called the plunge or the polar plunge, after a popular adult charitable fundraising event. There are variations, but the essence is still the same — get in, get wet, get cold and get out.

"There are different ways that people are doing it," said Carly Cook, a senior at John Stark High School in Weare. "Some people are jumping from a bridge so they're in the water longer because they have to swim to shore. Others go to the river. They go in and go under and run out."

As with teen activities ranging from the spectacular to the mundane, the plunges are being photographed or videotaped on cellphones and shared on social media.

Principals have sent notices to parents and initiated in-school discussion about the safety of the fad.

"We have significant safety concerns for our kids," said Brian Balke, superintendent of schools in Goffstown. "We are also concerned if part of this involves peer pressure and the use of online media to create pressure for other kids in our school to participate."

The pictures and videos that circulate on social media often "call out" another student to join the fad, creating what some educators say is uncomfortably close to bullying fellow students to suspend judgment and join in.

Some students see the concern of their teachers, but say it's overemphasized.

"From what I heard of the number that haven't (taken the plunge), there isn't any type of bullying going on," Cook said. I know so many that haven't done it."

Cook hasn't taken the plunge herself. Along with other members of the school softball team, she was warned by her coach that participating in the fad will mean getting kicked off the team.

Risky business

Physicians say overwhelming the body with sudden near-freezing temperatures carries a lot of risk.

"It's kind of a bad idea," said Dr. Timothy Bradley, a pediatric emergency room physician at Elliot Hospital.

Bradley worries about the practice on several levels.

It ignores basic elements of water safety, he said. Entering rivers with swiftly moving spring currents could sweep a person beyond the limits of rescue help. Diving into water that still has ice on the surface could make it impossible for the diver to rise to the surface.

"You get underwater through small ice holes, you get disoriented and can't get back out," Brady said. "In exposing the eye to the cold, its ability to work is definitely affected."

Since teens tend to have less body fat, they cool down quickly, Brady said. The body compensates by moving blood from its core to the area experiencing the sudden cold, which can cause shock and respiratory problems, causing brain damage.

Cook said students taking the plunge often sprint for towels and the warmth of a car after emerging from the cold water. Boys typically wear shorts and a shirt, while girls wear sports bras and Spandex or a swimsuit.

Underclassmen join in

Stark High Principal Christopher Corkery said in a memo to students that an activity that unites soon-to-be-graduated seniors has spread.

"While this may have started with a group of like-minded seniors, it seems to have already spread to the freshmen class," Corkery wrote. "I do ask you to consider your personal safety, and remind you that I have a responsibility to address any harassment, bullying, hazing or other threatening behavior towards your fellow students."

Some students are being dared through social media, publicly and by name. But Cook, who said she would have taken the plunge if not for her softball coach's warning, said nobody pays much attention if a student declines to run into the frigid water on a dare. She admits that the resistance to the dare may decline as the activity reaches the younger students.

Like other teen fads, ranging from swallowing goldfish to streaking to making explosives from vinegar and baking soda, the plunge may have a short life span.

"Some of my friends think it's stupid," Cook said. "They'll post a video of a plunge, and you'll see someone stepping in a puddle or pouring water on them from a water bottle."

Bradley, the emergency room physician, said he hasn't seen plunge-related issues in the Elliot ER yet, and holds out hope that he won't.

Still, he worries that the cases that end up in the emergency room will have dire consequences.

Injuries resulting from being submerged "typically don't end well, and are tragic because so many are so preventable," he said.

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