Clayton Schools settles student heat-related death for $10 million

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The family of Clayton County student athlete Imani Bell, who died of heatstroke during outdoor basketball drills three years ago, has settled a lawsuit against the school district for $10 million.

Bell was running with her Elite Scholars Academy teammates when she collapsed on Aug. 13, 2019 — a day on which when the heat index rose to 106 degrees. She was 16.

Clayton schools will pay the family $10 million and rename the gymnasium in Imani’s name.

“It’s a big way to have her name live on forever,” Eric Bell, Imani’s father, said during a Tuesday press conference announcing the settlement and the gym’s new moniker. “She always will be an elite scholar and a student athlete.”

Imani’s mother Dorian Bell added that the name change will be all the more special because Imani’s sister will be playing basketball in the facility in January.

“That will be a special moment,” she said.

Officials with the school district issued the following statement: “The Clayton County School District is pleased we were able to reach the best possible resolution of this tragic case involving the passing of Imani Bell. We have all lost a wonderful student. The attention this afternoon is rightfully on her legacy.

“The School District stands with the community in its commitment to the education and safety of its students.”

According to the family’s attorneys, school officials carried Imani into an indoor space and called emergency services after she collapsed. She was intubated and transported by ambulance to Southern Regional Hospital where she died later that day of heat-related cardiac arrest and kidney failure.

A Clayton County grand jury in July 2021 indicted Elite Scholars coaches Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere and Dwight Broom Palmer in connection to Imani’s death. The pair are charged with second degree murder, cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.

A criminal motion is set for the Dec. 2 calendar of Clayton County Superior Court Judge Robert Mack for Palmer and Walker-Asekere.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation found Imani had no preexisting conditions and attributed her death to heatstroke caused by strenuous physical exertion in extreme temperatures, Imani’s attorneys said.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found the coaches appeared to have violated district policy that requires suspension of outside athletic exercise when the heat index hits 95 degrees. Allowing athletic activity in that heat also appeared to violate Georgia High School Association policy, the AJC found.

“This is a bittersweet day ... because this family lost a child,” Justin Miller, a partner with Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys and a cousin of Bell’s, said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But maybe in losing that child other children will be helped.”

Some of the settlement will go to the Keep Imani Foundation that the family launched last year as a way to honor her memory, the teen’s parents and attorneys said.

The family did not know how the money would be divided on Tuesday, but said among the foundation’s goals will be to provide eyeglasses to children who need them, to educate coaches about heat exhaustion and to provide cold tubs.

Credit: LEON STAFFORD/AJC

Credit: LEON STAFFORD/AJC

“One of the biggest things that saddened me when Imani passed was, would she be remembered,” Dorian Bell said. “I found that was the silliest thing to ever think. Someone loved that much you could never forget. But this foundation gives us an opportunity to honor her, to honor other youth, to help others and we are very excited about that.”

At a ceremony Tuesday evening at the school, the Bells cut the ribbon on the renamed gym, now called the Imani Bell Gymnasium. They were flanked by their children, Clayton Superintendent Morcease Beasley, Clayton school board chairwoman Jessie Goree and several other officials from the district.

Goree told the crowd that amassed for the ribbon-cutting that facility will be Imani’s legacy. Though her life was cut short, she made an impact on those around her, who remember her as the student who gave 100% and could have taken the county to the state championship in basketball.

“I wanted to do this immediately after what happened with Ms. Bell,” Goree said as she teared up. “She’s not here to celebrate this in the physical, but spiritually I feel her presence.”

Beasley told the family that he hopes the renaming is a step toward healing and that it encourages them in the goals of their foundation.

“It is something to remind you that you have something to keep fighting for because there are other Imanis out there that need you,” Beasley said. “Through tragedy sometimes purpose is clarified.”

The attorneys also praised officials with Clayton County Schools for negotiating a settlement. L. Chris Stewart, managing partner of Stewart Miller Simmons, said the district should be saluted for not dragging out the lawsuit for years and taking it to trial.

“The amount they paid showed that, even though they can’t bring her back, that they cared about children in their district,” Stewart said.