Two basketball coaches at a magnet school in Georgia now face murder charges in connection with the death of 16-year-old Imani Bell, who collapsed and died hours after doing drills for the girls’ varsity team in scorching heat.
A junior at the Elite Scholars Academy, Bell collapsed during a conditioning drill that involved running up football stadium steps in the blistering sun.
Bell’s head basketball coach, Larosa Walker-Asekere, and assistant coach Dwight Palmer were indicted by an Atlanta-area grand jury just weeks before the two-year anniversary of the fateful outdoor basketball practice on Aug. 13, 2019.
That day, temperatures had climbed into the high 90s, with the heat index reaching as high as 106 degrees, causing Bell to pass out during the drill, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family’s lawyers in February against school administrators.
The indictment for Bell’s coaches charges them with second-degree murder, second-degree child cruelty, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless conduct for conducting the outdoor training in “dangerous heat.”
“The tragedy that happened with Imani shouldn’t have happened,” Bell’s dad, Eric Bell, said at a press conference Wednesday.
Eric Bell said he coaches at another school that canceled practice the day his daughter died, and he can’t grasp “the idea that someone would have their child or the team out in the extreme heat.”
Elite Scholars Academy declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment about the charges Wednesday.
According to the lawsuit, a heat advisory was issued in the area where the school is located at 4:30 p.m. due to the extremely high temperatures, and Imani “struggled to run up the stadium steps as directed” during the outdoor basketball practice. The teen had to grasp the railing to remain upright, then collapsed and lost consciousness when she approached the top of the stairs, the lawsuit states.
Just before 6 p.m., school officials sought emergency medical attention for Bell, who was intubated and taken by ambulance to Southern Regional Hospital, where she died that evening.
An autopsy later conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations found that Bell had no underlying medical conditions and her death was “solely attributable to heat stroke caused by strenuous physical exertion in extreme temperatures.”
Bell’s parents previously said that basketball was just one of the many hobbies loved by their deceased oldest child.
“I didn’t think I wasn’t leaving the hospital without my daughter,” Bell’s mom, Dorian Bell, said during a Good Morning America interview. “But it didn’t turn out that way. She fought, but she didn’t make it out.”
Justin Miller, a lawyer representing the family who is also Imani’s cousin, said rules were violated and appropriate measures had not been taken to prevent her death.
“The rules weren’t followed and they had rules that would have helped her stay alive,” he said. “They were supposed to have ice baths and things of that nature there if they were outside in the heat and they didn’t have that.”
In a response to the lawsuit, Asekere’s attorneys told WXIA-TV the head coach “was on her first day as coach of the girls' basketball team, and she was relying on the direction of the athletic director and Elite Scholars Academy personnel to conduct this conditioning activity.”
In addition to monetary damages, the family is seeking the removal of school officials, according to the lawsuit. Lawyers for Bell’s family say neither of the coaches still work at Elite Scholars Academy.
But a spokesperson for Clayton County Public Schools, Ronald Jones-Shields, declined to confirm the status of the coaches’ employment amid the charges, telling The Daily Beast in an email that the school system doesn’t comment “on personnel matters or pending/ongoing litigation.”
According to the lawsuit, Elite Scholars Academy is a member of the Georgia High School Association, which has rules for regularly checking the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature standard. Bell’s lawyers allege that if the teen’s coaches had followed the association’s guidelines, practice would have been canceled that day.
A mandate against practices or conditioning drills before Oct. 21, 2019, had also been violated, the lawsuit states.
GHSA’s executive director Robin Hines declined to comment on the lawsuit or the parents’ allegations in an email to The Daily Beast Wednesday, adding that the association’s “deepest sympathies” remain with Bell’s family.