Kids interviewed about school drowning described mild roughhousing and a generally attentive teacher.
On the final day of the swimming portion of their physical education curriculum, the 28 students in a St. Louis Park Middle School class were allowed free time to shoot hoops in the shallow end, swim laps or play a rambunctious variation of “king of the hill” by climbing onto a raft and pushing each other off.
Near the end of the Feb. 27 class, as a veteran teacher sat nearby, 12-year-old Abdullahi Charif, who was known to be a weak swimmer, slipped under the water and to the bottom of the 9-foot-deep end without notice.
Eventually, attempts to revive him failed, and he died a couple of days later at a hospital.
More than 100 pages of investigative documents were released this week containing eyewitness accounts of Charif’s final minutes.
The papers include transcribed interviews with 14 students and the teacher, as well as a report from the medical examiner and the Hennepin County attorney’s office, which declined last week to file charges against the teacher, a 25-year veteran who remains on paid administrative leave from the school district.
In a memo, Senior Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy noted that police reports made “passing mention” of teacher-to-student ratios, lighting in the pool area and possible facility violations in a subsequent county probe, but the teacher wasn’t responsible for them.
“This is a very tragic accident that resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy in a place everyone assumed he was safe: at school,” she wrote. “An accident, by definition, lacks the core element of intentional wrongdoing.”
But an attorney for Charif’s family members said Thursday that they see the report as confirming a suspicion. “He drowned because his teacher wasn’t paying enough attention,” Eric Hageman said, adding that he couldn’t envision a reasonable scenario in which a teacher would allow nonswimmers to play in the deep end.
“The class he drowned in was really poorly supervised; there’s no other explanation,” Hageman said.
Lawyer: Teacher heartbroken
The teacher’s lawyer, Sarah MacGillis, said he is heartbroken. “It’s not something he’s going to easily overcome or get over,” she said. “The fact that he wasn’t criminally charged does little to assuage his grief.”
MacGillis said the teacher had no control over the size of the class or over his duties to teach children with a range of abilities, to record attendance, and to conduct and grade tests. “It is inconceivable to me he had as much responsibility as he did over 28 students,” MacGillis said.
She also noted that her client cooperated with police over multiple interviews and “did his best to recall a series of events that were extremely stressful.”
The boy’s classmates reported that the teacher was attentive and that the students were roughhousing playfully.
Their accounts varied on where Charif was last seen and where he was playing. Some reported seeing him on the raft in the deep end or with the long, narrow flotation device he was using to stay afloat and navigate.
Some said he was only in the shallow end.
One boy’s account was deemed “most valuable and informative” by the police.
That boy, who was also a poor swimmer, said he last saw Charif pushed off the raft into the deep end with his flotation device nowhere in site. The boy said the teacher’s view of Charif’s plunge would have been blocked by the raft.