In April of 2009, grade 5 student Bezawit Chanyalew (“Bezawit”) suffered a cardiac arrest during gym class at her Vancouver school.  Before emergency workers could arrive, she suffered brain damage due to a lack of oxygen, leaving her with severe cognitive and physical disabilities.  The school board (the “Board”) recently settled her claim out of court for $1.7 million.  The allegations of negligence levelled against the Board raised some interesting questions about the standard of care to which school boards may be held.

Two days prior to the incident, the school  Bezawit attended received a fax stating that Bezawit had a congenital heart condition known as “Long QT Syndrome”, putting her at increased risk of seizures and cardiac arrest, especially if she engaged in physical exertion.  Bezawit was running in a 100 metre relay when she collapsed.

The Statement of Claim filed against the Board alleged that the Board’s school was negligent in two ways: first, that after receiving the fax, the school should have immediately developed a protocol to minimize Bezawit’s risk of injury; and second, that the school should have obtained all the information necessary to ensure Bezawit was safely able to participate in physical education class. 

As the Board settled the claim, the impact, if any, of class size, student/teacher ratios, and supports for students with special needs will not be litigated in this case, although these were among the key issues in the recent teachers’ strike in British Columbia.  Bezawit’s teacher reported during examinations for discovery that she had between 28 and 30 students in her grade 5 class, three of whom had autism, and one or two of whom had severe learning disabilities.  There was one support worker for the class.  While an appropriate ratio of staff to students will inevitably depend on the individual needs of the students, school boards may wish to take note of the fact that class size and composition was raised at the discovery stage of the proceedings.

This tragic incident also highlights the importance of ensuring that schools have the capacity to provide adequate emergency response measures.  The 2006 death of 11-year-old Barrie student Chase McEachern, who also collapsed in gym class, led to a campaign in his memory to make Automated External Defibrillators (“AED’s”) available in Ontario schools and hockey arenas.  As a result, financial assistance and training in the use of AED’s in schools and recreational centres has become widely accessible.

The Chase McEachern Act (Heart Defibrillator Civil Liability Act) 2006 protects from liability those who, “in good faith, voluntarily and without reasonable expectation of compensation or reward” use a defibrillator on a person experiencing an emergency, as well as owners and occupiers of the buildings where AED’s are installed.  In addition, the Good Samaritan Act (2001) can be relied upon by people who voluntarily offer CPR or first aid assistance in an emergency.

Statistics show that approximately 1 in 600 teens has an undiagnosed heart problem, which can translate into two to three students in a typical high school.  In addition, there are students like Bezawit and Chase who have a known condition.  Defibrillation, along with CPR, is considered the definitive treatment for sudden cardiac arrest.  With AED’s increasingly common in a variety of settings, the standard of care for operators of public spaces, such as school boards, is evolving to include the provision of these devices and staff training for its safe and appropriate use. 

As School Councils prepare to convene and develop their goals for the coming school year, principals may wish to consider involving the parent community in a review of the school’s emergency response capabilities and whether access to all available means and resources have been explored.

On October 16, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. our Morning Recess webinar, Parent Councils: What Every Principal Needs to Know, will examine fundraising and other issues important to school councils and school administrators.