U.S. Court Rebuffs Civil Rights Claim in Student’s Drowning

By Mark Walsh — December 28, 2012 2 min read
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The Milwaukee school district may not be held liable under federal law for the drowning death of a 12-year-old student on a class outing to a lake, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The parents of Kamonie Slade sued the school district and several educators after their son drowned while swimming at a public beach in Kettle Moraine State Forest in southeastern Wisconsin. Kamonie’s school had sought parental permission for students to “play in the water” on the field trip. But the beach had no lifeguard, and the Milwaukee district’s rules forbid recreational swimming on field trips when no lifeguard is present.

Court papers say Kamonie was a poor swimmer but waded deeper and deeper into the lake until he was drawn either by a current or the slope of the lake to a depth that was over his head.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, upheld the dismissal of the family’s federal civil rights claim, though the court suggested the family’s state-law claims for negligence, at least against the assistant principal who led the field trip, may well be “meritorious.”

But in the opinion for the unanimous 7th Circuit court panel in Slade v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, Judge Richard A. Posner says the parents’ arguments that the defendants enticed Kamonie into danger “overshoot the mark.”

“The defendants’ negligence enhanced the risk to Kamonie, but negligence is not enticement, or deliberate indifference, or blindness to obvious dangers,” Posner writes in the Dec. 27 ruling.

The judge explores various concepts from U.S. Supreme Court and lower-court decisions dealing with civil rights claims seeking to hold government agencies liable for private harm to individuals, such as “deliberate indifference” and “shock the conscience” behavior. Posner suggests that “recklessness” is the proper standard for such cases, and that the defendants’ behavior did not deprive Kamonie of his life in violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Still, besides suggesting potential state-law negligence, Judge Posner had harsh words for some of the school district’s defenses.

“Kamonie was only a 12-year-old,” Posner writes. “He lacked mature judgment; and he was subject to the usual peer pressures that beset children. Was it realistic to expect him to hang back when his classmates were splashing around in the water? The defendants’ argument that Kamonie was the author of his own death is heartless.”

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