An Atlanta-area grand jury has indicted two high school coaches in the death of a student after she collapsed at basketball practice two years ago.
Elite Scholars Academy head basketball coach Larosa Walker-Asekere and assistant basketball coach Dwight Palmer were charged with second-degree murder, second-degree child cruelty, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless conduct on July 1, almost two years after the heatstroke death of basketball player Imani Bell.
The family of the deceased filed a lawsuit in February against the school’s coaching staff and district seeking funeral and burial expenses, and citing wrongful death, pre-death pain, and suffering.
“We just want closure in this whole situation,” Imani’s mother Dorian Bell said of the suit. “We need that. That’s a part of our healing.”
The family’s attorney Justin Miller added, “The charges are good. Someone is being held responsible. This is what the family wanted.”
The 16-year-old Bell collapsed and lost consciousness during the Clayton County charter school’s outdoor basketball practice on Aug. 13, 2019, in temperatures that fell between 96 and 99 degrees, putting the heat index temperature between 101 and 106 degrees, according to Bell family lawyers. Before succumbing to the heat, Bell let her coaches know that she wasn’t feeling well, but was told to run up and down stadium stairs instead of resting.
At one point Imani was helped by a coach who noticed she was tired and began walking the last lap “with her and encouraged her.” The coach may have “physically assisted her up the stairs. As Miss Bell neared the top … (she) leaned into the rail and then went limp,” per the report.
According to the lawsuit, Imani died later that day of heat-related cardiac arrest and kidney failure.
“Due to the extreme heat and humidity outside, Imani began experiencing early signs of heat illness and was visibly struggling to physically perform the outdoor conditioning drills defendants directed her to perform,” the lawsuit reads.
“Defendants observed Imani experiencing early signs of heat illness during the outdoor practice but nevertheless directed Imani to continue performing the conditioning drills with her team and directed Imani to run up the stadium steps.”
Bell collapsed at the top of the stadium stairs that day, according a report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where she succumbed to the effects of heatstroke.
Imani’s father, Eric Bell, who also coaches a basketball team at a nearby school, recalled the “gut-wrenching” scene at the hospital after E.R. doctors revived his daughter twice. “The body was so hot that it went right back into cardiac arrest. I was actually in the room, and you know, that’s not a memory I’ll ever forget.”.
The Clayton County grand jury indictment places blame on the coaches for contributing to Bell’s death “by conducting outdoor conditioning training for student-athletes in dangerous heat, resulting in the death of Imani Bell due to hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis.”
Miller noted that rules were “broken from start to finish.” Adding, “An hour before those conditioning drills, the county warned all its schools: “…Heat Advisory… No sports or clubs should be outside. “There’s no trainer to help her,” Miller said. “There’s no ice baths to put her in. There is now way to help her at that time.
“A Clayton County Schools spokesperson told reporters that “due to pending litigation in this matter, it is the standard practice of Clayton County Public Schools to decline to offer comment,” when asked to comment on Asekere and Palmer’s employment status with the district, as well as any response to the grand jury indictment.
Both Asekere and Palmer were arrested in July following the indictment, and have since been released on a $75,000 bond.