Family files lawsuit in Clayton County student heat death

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The family of an Elite Scholars Academy student who died in 2019 after collapsing in the August heat during outdoor basketball drills is suing the Clayton County school’s leadership and coaching staff.

Attorneys for the family of Imani Bell allege the school was negligent in allowing the 16-year-old to continue practice on Aug. 13, 2019, as the heat index shot up to 106 degrees and despite Bell signaling she was in distress from the sizzling temperatures.

They are suing for wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering and for funeral and burial expenses.

“We just want closure in this whole situation,” Imani’s mother Dorian Bell said during a press conference Wednesday. “We need that. That’s a part of our healing.”

Clayton County school system officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

Superintendent Morcease Beasley issued a statement the day of Imani’s death, expressing sorrow and plans to provide grief counselors. “Our team is working diligently to determine more details relative to this matter,” the statement said.

Beasley and school officials have been mum ever since.

Imani was pronounced dead after being transported to Southern Regional Hospital. She was diagnosed with cardiac arrest and acute kidney failure, the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for the family said school officials involved should be fired and possibly face criminal charges, and that they do not have a specific dollar figure in mind for the monetary damages.

“Imani was a loving daughter, a sister, a wonderful and smart scholar and she had big dreams,” said Justin Miller, a cousin of Imani’s and an attorney representing the family through Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys. “Those dreams were taking away from her because the adults who should have been there to protect and care for her dropped the ball.”

The six-count litigation, which was filed in Clayton County State Court on Tuesday, names the school’s principal, two assistant principals, the athletic director and a coach as defendants, as well as six “John Does” that will be identified at a later time. The Clayton County school system as an entity is not named in the lawsuit.

Aspects of the lawsuit mirror reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that found the school appeared to have violated district policy that requires suspension of outside athletic activities 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.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of failing to follow both policies, which also include mandatory water breaks every 30 minutes when the heat index is between 90 degrees and 94 degrees.

After Imani’s death, the district added extra measures to keep students safe from the heat for the rest of that summer and fall, including canceling physical education classes, unstructured play and athletic practices on days when temperatures soared into the high 90s and heat indexes were above 100 degrees.

Eric Bell, Imani’s father who is also a basketball coach, said Wednesday he could not imagine why the Elite Scholars’ coaching staff allegedly continued the drills as the temperatures rose. He said coaches must follow the rules.

“On behalf of the family, we are going to fight as hard as we can to get some form of justice for Imani,” Miller said. “We can never bring her back, but it’s up to us and it’s on us to make sure that this does not happen again.”