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.
Police found that explanation credible, saying the raft and choppy water from the horseplay would have made it “very difficult for” the teacher to see the boy go under and drown.
Michael McGee, the Ramsey County medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the boy, said he found no trauma to indicate that Charif died from anything other than accidental drowning. McGee also told police that nonswimmers can drown quietly and quickly without any flailing.
The police report, however, said interviews noted a “glaring discrepancy” between when the teacher claims he last saw the boy and when students reported seeing him.
The teacher said he last saw Charif a couple of minutes after he blew the second and final whistle at 8:45 a.m., but none of the 14 students interviewed said they saw the boy then. Police estimated that Charif drowned between 8:33 a.m. and 8:42 a.m.
Another problematic statement from the teacher was that he claimed not to have seen the boy in the deep end, police said.
During the class, the teacher said he took about five minutes to give a test to a couple of swimmers in the shallow end and to record the results on his iPad, but most of the time he was on a bench at the midpoint between the shallow and deep ends of the pool.
A timeline of tragedy
The reports included the teacher’s timeline of that day: Class began at 8:16 a.m. At 8:40 a.m., the teacher blew the first whistle indicating that the students had 15 minutes before the end of the period and that they could leave the pool or swim another five minutes. The report said about two-thirds of the students left the pool.
At 8:45 a.m., the teacher blew the whistle a second time, requiring the remaining students to remove equipment from the pool and go to the locker room. The teacher told police that at that time, he saw Charif playing in the shallow end of the pool.
No more than three minutes later, the teacher believed everyone was out of the pool, but as he headed into the locker room, he found a pair of boy’s shoes. He asked the boys in the locker room about the shoes, then went back to the pool and saw Charif submerged in the deep end.
The teacher said he pulled the boy out and began CPR.
At 8:52 a.m., 911 was called. Emergency personnel arrived at 8:57 a.m., the report said, but their efforts came too late, and two days later, Charif died in the hospital.