On January 29, 2015, a 9-year old student of Brletic Elementary School in Parlier, California was walking to class. He was accompanied by two teenagers, one of whom was his older sister. Normally, the boy would have taken the bus to school; foggy conditions canceled all bus trips that fateful morning. The boy would tragically pass away a mile before reaching his campus. An unlicensed driver lost control of his truck, striking the student and the two teenagers he was with. It would take until 2017 before a wrongful death settlement would be offered to his family, though questions still remain regarding who ultimately is at fault.
A flawed requirement
At the time of the accident, the victim was walking to school through dense fog. This, according to the family’s attorneys, placed the child in an unsafe situation. As to why the family would place the child in such danger, the attorneys would argue that the school had essentially forced them to.
Attendance for the school was important for more than just educational goals. The school administration and trustees sought to maximize state funding through high attendance. They created a policy that would penalize students with unexcused absences, even on days where fog prevented the buses from running.
A mistrial leads to wrongful death settlement
In September 2017, a trial for the student’s death took place. The family’s attorneys argued that the Parlier Unified School District’s policies were directly responsible for accident. Had more reasonable policies been in place, it is likely that the young boy would not have been walking to school that morning.
The school district said the blame lay entirely on the driver of the truck. A Fresno attorney argued for Parlier Unified, citing that the accident happened off school grounds. Their policies hadn’t forced an unlicensed driver to lose control on a slick street with low visibility
The jury was split in favor of the family. A second trial was requested for November, but ultimately all parties involved decided to settle out of court. The wrongful death settlement was agreed to at $475,000.
Indications of greater problems
Parlier’s decision to sign for a wrongful death settlement is the latest instance of the school district being in the news. In 2015, the same year as the accident in this story, a Fresno grand jury determined the district was misusing millions in funding. A sad irony, given that they enforced an attendance policy based around preserving that same funding.
Additionally, a former assistant superintendent, Juan Sandoval, was a key witness in the liability case. He himself received a $350,000 settlement from Parlier Unified after being fired a month before the student’s death. He claims that he was fired by Superintendent Gerado Alvarez because he refused to take illegal actions. Actions that ultimately involved creating a policy that would ‘intimidate’ parents into getting their kids to school.
“Do whatever you have to do to have over 98 percent attendance,” is what Alvarez said, according to Sandoval.
As a stand-alone incident, Parlier Unified is certainly suspect for it’s practices. It also leads to other questions, such as the state of California’s own involvement. If funding for schools is based in part off attendance, could other school districts around the state be in similar positions as Parlier Unified? Are other students at risk, simply because administrators are fearful of losing their funding?
The future of student safety in California
As part of the wrongful death settlement, Parlier agreed that it’s schools must inform parents of a new Foggy Day policy by November 1st every year. If buses are not able to reach students further than a mile away from a campus, and if a family cannot reliable transport the child themselves, they will not be marked tardy or marked with an unexcused absence.
Ironically, a day after the January 2015 accident, Superintendent Alvarez sent out a letter to all Parlier Unified families. In it, Alvarez stated that students would not be penalized for staying home during excessive fog days. It would be the first time many families were aware that they did not have to send their children walking to school in dangerously thick fog.
It is clear that some school administrators are feeling the pressure under California’s funding requirements. Pressure that some may have bent under. For now, a wrongful death settlement may be the first step towards ensuring this never happens again.