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On anniversary of Hezekiah B. Walters’ death, Hillsborough school district seeks better safety measures

Walters, 14, died after conditioning drills last summer at Middleton High School.
Published Jun. 11, 2020
Updated Jun. 11, 2020

TAMPA — On the one-year anniversary of the death of Middleton High freshman Hezekiah B. Walters, the Hillsborough County school district announced a sprawling set of safety measures and protocols to prevent heat-related tragedies in the future.

The announcement came at a news conference Thursday about the financial settlement with the Walters family — $987,255 — as well as the measures being enacted.

Walters, 14, collapsed in the late afternoon of June 11, 2019, on the school’s football field after the team had completed 30-40 minutes of drills, Tampa police have said. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His temperature at the time was 102 degrees, according to an investigative summary from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office.

A school district investigation found that some safety protocols weren’t followed before Walters’ death.

At the news conference, new superintendent Addison Davis — flanked by Walters’ parents, older sister and family attorney Steve Yerrid — announced new required training for coaches and athletes that will be known as the Hezekiah Walters Sports Medicine Educational Plan on Hydration and Heat Illness.

“Our commitment to student safety is stronger today and remains our No. 1 priority,” Davis said.

“This young man’s legacy will live through our training, and we will work to protect the tens of thousands of athletes that we serve every day and hope for a brighter future.”

Related: Superintendent: Safety protocols not followed before Middleton player’s death; two school officials removed

Among the new procedures: All football coaches must be certified in Heads Up Football training, a safety program sanctioned by USA Football, by the 2020-21 school year. Each school must be equipped with at least one cold immersion tub. Training required through the Positive Coaching Alliance, national nonprofit organization with the mission to create a positive, character-building youth sports environment. And a commitment to having at least one certified athletic trainer on each campus.

Additionally, the school board in March adopted a policy that outlines training procedures and guidelines for heat-related illnesses, cardiac arrest, length of practices and sickle cell education, among other situations, for all extracurricular activities.

“This policy outlines that any staff who fails to follow this procedure will be terminated in this organization,” Davis said.

Walters’ mother, Phyllis Thompson Walters, said the efforts to ensure the safety of athletes will be ongoing.

“We’ve put some measures in place, and we’ve put some protocols in place,” said Walters, the school district’s middle school counselor of the year in 2017. “Now a lot of us have got some hard work to do. We’ve been working hard. It’s going to just frame us to work even harder.”

Related: Middleton player’s death highlights area’s need for more athletic trainers

Yerrid praised the school district for again not shielding itself behind the state’s sovereign-immunity principle, which essentially limits the amount that can be received in a lawsuit against a school board to $300,000.

Five years ago, the school board agreed to a $2 million settlement with Wharton High linebacker Sean McNamee, who required two brain surgeries after hitting his head on a paint machine while going up for a pass before practice had begun.

Hezekiah B. Walters, 14, had a temperature of 102 degrees when he arrived at the hospital in cardiac arrest after collapsing while participating in football conditioning drills at Middleton High School  last June.
Hezekiah B. Walters, 14, had a temperature of 102 degrees when he arrived at the hospital in cardiac arrest after collapsing while participating in football conditioning drills at Middleton High School last June.

Five years ago, the school board agreed to a $2 million settlement with Wharton High linebacker Sean McNamee, who required two brain surgeries after hitting his head on a paint machine while going up for a pass before practice had begun.

“They’re paying this (Walters) family a million dollars,” said Yerrid, who also served as McNamee’s attorney. “They didn’t have to, but they kept their word, they kept their honor, and honored this family by establishing what is now Hezekiah’s protocol.

“I didn’t want to sue this school board. This is my school board. I went to Plant High School.”

Related: 'God needed him more than we did’

The Florida High School Athletic Association’s board of directors recently unanimously passed guidelines requiring schools to measure each day’s heat stress with wet bulb globe thermometers. Wet bulb globe temperature is a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover.

Based on a given day’s readings, practices may have to be cut short, modified to include more water breaks, moved indoors or called off.

Davis said the efforts to have a certified athletic trainer on all 28 high school campuses hit a snag when USF’s Sports Medicine & Athletic-Related Trauma Institute told the district it could no longer provide trainers due to coronavirus concerns. The dissolved partnership affects 11 schools, Davis said.

Until new trainers are found, “our plan is to have our own medical-trained staff on our sites from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the temperature peaks,” Davis said.

“And remember, before our coaches step on the field, they are trained to detect heat-related illnesses at all times.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.