Education

Teacher Immune in Student’s Swimming-Related Death, Appeals Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — September 01, 2015 3 min read

A Pennsylvania physical education teacher who required a student non-swimmer to spend most of a class period in a school pool was immune from liability after the student ingested water into his lungs and died, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The student, Juanya Spady, was a 15-year-old sophomore at Liberty High School in the Bethlehem Area School District in 2010, court papers say. He was in the swimming portion of a P.E. class taught by teacher Carlton Rodgers, who required experienced swimmers as well as those who did not know how to swim to spend the entire class period in the school pool, the papers say. Non-swimmers could remain in the shallow end or work their way around the edge of the whole pool.

The lawsuit said Spady spent some time in the shallow end before doing a “gutter grab” to reach the deep end, where he ran into some other students and briefly submerged, possibly inhaling water as he resurfaced.

Spady left the pool and told Rodgers his chest hurt and asked whether he could stay out of the pool. Rodgers ordered him back in the pool, court papers say.

While Spady was in his English class, about 90 minutes after he had been in the water, he had a seizure, with a pink, frothy fluid emerging from his mouth and nose. He was transported to a hospital but died later that day.

An expert medical report filed as part of the suit concluded that Spady had died of a phenomenon known as “delayed drowning,” when water is inhaled into the lungs and eventually causes a spasm and asphyxiation. The rare condition can occur as long as a day after the person inhales water, the expert’s report said.

The boy’s mother, Mica Spady, sued Rodgers and the Bethlehem Area School District, claiming that they deprived her son of his civil rights. The suit alleges a 14th Amendment due process of law claim against Rodgers based on the “state-created danger” theory of liability. The claim against the school district alleges liability based on deliberate indifference, arguing that the district failed to train its P.E. teachers in how to properly teach and supervise swimming lessons.

A federal district judge denied summary judgment to Rodgers based on his claim of qualified immunity. And the judge denied the school district’s summary judgment motion, ruling that there were genuine factual disputes among the parties over the cause of Spady’s death, the validity of competing experts, and other matters, as to require a trial.

In its Sept. 1 decision in Spady v. Bethlehem Area School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled unanimously that Rodgers was entitled to qualified immunity.

(The appeal involved only the potential liability of the P.E. teacher, not that of the school district. The claim against the district remains alive in the district court.)

The appeals court agreed that the case was “undeniably tragic,” but as for Rodgers’s immunity, “the question is whether the law in this context was so well-established that it would have been apparent to a reasonable gym teacher that failure to take action to assess a non-apparent condition that placed the student in mortal danger violated that student’s constitutional right under the state-created-danger theory of liability.”

The court answers that in the negative.

“No [U.S.] Supreme Court case has established a right to adequate safety protocols during public-school swimming class,” the appeals court said. “Indeed, no decision of the Supreme Court even discusses the right of students to have adequate safety protocols in these settings or in any analogous setting.”

While some gym teachers and coaches have faced liability for putting students in dangerous situations, those situations involved “patently egregious and intentional misconduct, which is notably absent from this case,” the court said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read