Parents recount traumatic stories from WVHS football players

Jen Martell, of the FNSBSD Risk Management Team, updates the school board as Jill Dolan (center) and Wendy Dau (right) prepare to answer questions. (Photo by Robyne, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Jen Martell, of the FNSBSD Risk Management Team, updates the school board as Jill Dolan (center) and Wendy Dau (right) prepare to answer questions. (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Parents repeated their children’s accounts of a traumatic team practice gone wrong. The West Valley High School football team was in the second day of a three-day pre-season training camp.

Amy Angaiak said she and her family understood the practice to be mandatory, if her son was to be on the football team.

“So he was definitely intimidated by the mandatory “crucible camp;” three hours a day for three days, to earn his pads,” Angaiak said.

On Friday July 26th, the coaching staff had rented the swimming pool at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and those that wanted to be on the team were told to bring a sweatshirt or hoodie and come to the pool. Various witness accounts describe all the team members getting into the pool fully clothed, then helping each other remove the hoodie while in the water.

Angaiak recounted what she had heard from others and said the exercise expected too much from inexperienced teens, especially those who could not swim.

”My son said the coach asked who couldn’t swim, and five boys raised their hands. Then instructed the other team members that they hand to take care of them,” Angaiak said.

At some point in the exercise, swimmers needed help, and before the coaching staff and the one lifeguard on duty could get all the players out of the pool, three had sunk to the bottom, unconscious. They were pulled out, given CPR by UAF EMTs, and taken to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital by ambulance.

They were treated overnight, and one was released the next day. The second was discharged Sunday and the last after four nights at the hospital.

Natasha Cummings said her son called her in a panic that Friday night, after being traumatized by watching his team-mates nearly die. She recounted a phone call she made that night to the head coach.

“And I’m like, what happened, where were you? He says he was standing there ‘cause they had lifeguard there, and the kids were in charge of helping each other,” Cummings said.

The head coach resigned the morning after the incident.

The West Valley High School principal went to the hospital as the children were taken there. She sent an email message about midnight that evening to football team parents that all pre-season activities were suspended, including a team parent meeting scheduled for early Saturday morning. Cummings said that made some parents angry, as they needed information and an apology.

“No official came forward to say ‘we apologize for what happened to your children.’ That’s all we wanted, from the get-go. All you had to show up and say ‘parents, we know what’s goin’ on, we can’t talk about it, because we don’t have all the facts. But we sorry. That would’ go a long way for all of us,” Cummings said.

Practices resumed July 31. An assistant coach is taking over while the investigation proceeds.

Superintendent Karen Gaborik says about 25 people have spoken with investigators so far.

“I truly appreciate everybody’s patience with the information gathering. With so many people, 42 players and the coaching staff, it takes time to conduct interviews and engage in a very thorough process,” Gaborik said.

That was repeated by board members when they came out of an executive session to get a status report from investigators and the borough legal staff. Board president Wendy Dominique read a statement:

“This is a top priority for the school board. This is an emotional matter for all of us. We appreciate everyone who has contacted the school board, your communication is of utmost importance to this board.”

The School District released this statement after the board meeting:

NEWS RELEASE

School board special meeting about July 26 student swimming accident

FAIRBANKS— The Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education held a special meeting Monday, August 5, about the July 26 swimming accident that required three West Valley High School students to be rushed to the hospital. School Board President Wendy Dominique shared the following statement at the meeting.

“Thank you to the parents and others who came out tonight to provide testimony and voice concerns.  We are very concerned about the incident that occurred with the West Valley High School football team. This a top priority for the school board.

We know this is a difficult time for students, staff, and parents, and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we gather information to ensure the safety and well-being of our students.  This is an emotional matter for all of us.  We appreciate everyone who has contacted the school board.  Your communication is of utmost importance to this Board.

We are a community that cares deeply for our students.  We will do everything we can to ensure their health and safety. We continue to gather information and will complete the process as soon as possible.”

The inquiry into the event is still underway, but the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District can share the following information.

The Activity

West Valley football scheduled a three-day pre-season conditioning event for July 25, 26, and 27, 2019. The football season officially began on July 31. Any preseason activities are voluntary and cannot be required to be a part of the team per Alaska School Activities Association and the FNSBSD. All local schools with football programs do preseason activities open to anyone interested in playing football. However, there are indications that the coach told players that this event was mandatory.

The first day of the event included field work. A conditioning event was scheduled to take place on the second day from 6 pm – 9 pm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Pool. There were approximately 39 players at the pool on day two. In addition to the head coach, six assistant coaches were in attendance. A lifeguard was provided by Patty Pool.

During this event, students had difficulty performing the exercises and three required serious medical attention and were transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital by ambulance.

The Response

WVHS Principal Sarah Gillam was immediately notified and responded to the hospital Friday night.

Fortunately, all students were released from the hospital. One student was released on Saturday, July 27, a second was released on Sunday, July 28, and the third was released on Tuesday, July 30.

The district has $25,000 per student available through an insurance policy for accidental injuries that occur during student activities. It is a secondary benefit available after families have exhausted any personal health insurance they may have. This would cover physical injuries, but would not include counseling benefits.

Crisis counseling was made available immediately the next day and on the following Monday as many people were understandably upset by this event. In addition to the immediate crisis counseling that was provided, out of concern for the well-being of the students, the district is providing reimbursement for up to six counseling sessions if the involved families feel that is appropriate for their child. This is being coordinated through Risk Management.

As is the district’s usual policy when injuries occur during student activities, Risk Management was notified. They have been gathering information so the district can fully understand what happened during this event.

WVHS Football Season

Head Coach Roy Hessner submitted his resignation to Principal Gillam on Saturday, July 27. The coaches that were involved in the planning and supervision of the conditioning event, including two who are parents of student participants in the pool activity, are not currently coaching the team.

Superintendent Karen Gaborik suspended West Valley pre-season football activities due to the seriousness of the incident. Regular season activities began on Wednesday, July 31 with a student and parent football meeting. The first official practice for the team was held immediately afterwards.

Norm Davis has been selected as acting head coach. Norm is a teacher at University Park Elementary and has helped coach football and wrestling at West Valley for many years. Principal Gillam will hire a permanent head coach as soon as Superintendent Gaborik gives her approval to do so. We are hopeful that she will be able to move forward with hiring a full-time permanent football staff in the near future. 

Next Steps

“I truly appreciate everybody’s patience with the information gathering process,” said Superintendent Gaborik. “With the large number of people involved in this event, including the 42 players and the coaching staff, it takes time to conduct interviews.”

Once the inquiry is complete, Superintendent Gaborik will review the recommendations and make decisions about how the district will move forward with regard to pre-season activities for all sports. Also under consideration will be the safety of activities not normally within the realm of a particular activity.

We will continue to provide updates to the community as information becomes available that we are able to share.