Friends, family honor Clayton student who died after athletic drills

Lyndel Mason looks over the flowers and photographs before the start of funeral services Saturday for Imani Bell at the Hillside Chapel & Truth Center in Atlanta STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

To the family of a teen who died after outdoor athletic drills at her school, Hillside International Truth Center Bishop Barbara King had a message Saturday: She may be gone from their sight, but her spirit lives in them and everything around them.

As the life of Imani Bell was celebrated through dance, poetry, anecdotes and tearful remembrances from faculty, King said the 16-year-old was a teacher and a leader who taught others how to live life to the fullest.

“She was a ‘shero,’” King said after listening to numerous stories of how Imani made others laugh, held the hands of friends when they were down or demonstrated leadership on the basketball court and in the classroom. “This celebration is for all of us.”

The Elite Scholars Academy student was laid to rest 11 days after she collapsed and later died during conditioning drills in extreme heat at the Clayton County school. Imani, who had wanted to go to Stanford University, had told a coach during the training that she was not feeling well and was instructed to run up steps, the family said.

That day's temperatures appear to suggest students should not have been outdoors. In a policy titled "Heat advisory precautions for physical education/school day activities," the district mandates that all outside activities — including physical education classes — are to be suspended when the heat index is 95 degrees and above.

Temperatures on Aug. 13 reached a record 100.3 degrees with a heat index of 109 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

But on Saturday, the focus was not on how Imani Bell died, but how she lived.

As many as 500 people filled the pews and balcony seating at Hillside, a west Atlanta church, including Clayton Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley and school board chairwoman Jessie Goree.

People look over the flowers and photographs before the start of funeral services Saturday for Imani Bell at the Hillside Chapel & Truth Center in Atlanta August 24, 2019. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

About 50 Elite Academy students, dressed in school uniforms, recited the school’s creed and silently watched a video tribute of their classmate imitating a drum player, making faces at the camera and getting up on the basketball court after falling down.

Others in the assemblage during the nearly two-hour ceremony wore purple dresses, ties and shirts to say goodbye to Imani in her favorite color. Members of Hillside's Truth in Motion Dance Ministry performed in purple and white to Kenny Bobien's "I Shall Not Be Moved," bringing those in attendance to their feet.

Gabryelle Matthews, who met Imani in the fourth grade and had been one of her closest friends, told the congregation that the pair was inseparable — whether it be during sleepovers, on the basketball court or dinner after games.

“I thank God for our relationship,” she said. “Knowing her was just everything to me.”

Ashley Baker, Imani’s sixth-grade teacher, described her former student as a perfectionist who was consistently prepared, always turned in A-quality work and led by example.

"In class, she was always on task," said an emotional Baker, her voice cracking as tears flowed. "She was a student who liked to be challenged. She made me want to be a better teacher."

Imani’s mother, Dorian Bell, said she will miss watching “Supergirl” with her daughter, a favorite mother-daughter bonding experience. She told the congregation that Imani’s father, Eric, and Imani’s four siblings will have to pick up the slack in helping her with computers and other tech.

What she might miss most of all, however, is her daughter’s simplicity.

“Imani, thank you for being you,” her mother said, adding that she was her daughter’s biggest fan. “When going shopping for shoes, nothing made you happier than a simple pair of Crocs.

“I’m so honored that God chose me as your mother,” she said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has kept readers up-to-date on the Aug. 13 death of 16-year-old Elite Scholars Academy student Imani Bell. Coverage has included:

Aug. 15: Sources report death of Clayton County student during conditioning drills

Aug. 16: Family says heat contributing to Imani Bell’s death

Thursday: Hundreds celebrate life of Imani Bell at candlelight vigil

Friday: Policy obtained by the AJC through an open record request indicates Elite Scholars Academy appears to have violated district policy that requires suspension of outside athletic activities when the heat index hits 95 degrees. The heat index Aug. 13 reached 109 degrees at 4 p.m., according the National Weather Service.

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