TAMPA — Two days after Hillsborough County schools superintendent Jeff Eakins spoke publicly about the disciplinary and corrective measures the district took following the death of Middleton’s Hezekiah B. Walters, the lawyer representing the family praised the district.
“Mr. Eakins and the school board are to be commended, not condemned for the efforts they have made,” lawyer Steve Yerrid said during Wednesday’s news conference. “When they do make errors throughout the system, they are the type of people who take responsibility, own it and then make necessary changes. And those are the type of people we want in our community.”
But Yerrid said more can be done.
“What we want to do is bring well-needed and much-deserved change,” he said. “We want to develop an awareness that student-athletes are the first and only priority. Their safety is paramount to any and all other considerations.”
Walters, a 14-year-old incoming freshman, collapsed and died after going through conditioning drills in June. Nearly three weeks ago, Yerrid’s firm sent a legal claim letter seeking documents related to the workout when Walters collapsed.
The biggest changes that Phyllis and Felix Walters want to see implemented are full-time athletic trainers at every school, more safety protocols put in place and all coaches in attendance at every practice and game.
On Monday, Eakins announced disciplinary action, including the transfer of assistant principal Mark Jones and head football coach Fred Reid. He also stressed that paperwork for athletes has to be thoroughly checked and he will be recommending at the next school board meeting in August that each high school has a full-time athletic trainer. That would include having trainers during the summer. The district also has immersion tubs at each high school that Eakins will recommend be used in warm conditions.
The superintendent sent a letter to parents about the changes made to ensure the safety of student-athletes.
Yerrid said a lawsuit is still possible, but he is waiting to see if the district follows up on the recommended changes.
Yerrid’s firm has represented other area high school athletes, including the families of Seminole High’s Steve Georgiadis and Wharton’s Sean McNamee.
In 1991, UF Health Shands Hospital reached an out-of-court settlement with the Georgiadis family after the former Warhawk and Florida baseball standout died from heart-related complications following routine shoulder surgery.
Four years ago, the Hillsborough County school board agreed to a $2 million settlement with McNamee, which Yerrid said at the time was the largest in district history.
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As part of McNamee’s settlement, the school board also agreed to provide an additional $1 million in coverage above the $300,000 already granted in cases of wrongful injury or death for all student-athletes in Hillsborough County.
The district also put new safety measures in place, including the McNamee protocol, that established uniform procedures to be followed in the event of a suspected head injury. McNamee hit his head on a paint machine while trying to catch a pass in practice. He had swelling and bleeding on his brain and spent nine days in a coma. After numerous surgeries, McNamee survived.