Kennewick School District sued when boy with asthma dies after PE on smoky day

A Highlands Middle School student died in September 2017 when he had a severe asthma attack shortly after PE class. A federal lawsuit filed recently said the school nurse and district officials failed to follow a doctor’s orders restricting the boy from participating in physical fitness.
A Highlands Middle School student died in September 2017 when he had a severe asthma attack shortly after PE class. A federal lawsuit filed recently said the school nurse and district officials failed to follow a doctor’s orders restricting the boy from participating in physical fitness. File

A Kennewick middle school student whose severe asthma restricted him from physical fitness died after his participation in a PE class.

Jonny Torres’ asthma symptoms became aggravated during the class at Highlands Middle School, which was held indoors at the time because of poor air quality from wildfire smoke.

He then had a severe asthma attack upon arriving home, was rushed to the hospital under a “code blue” and remained on life support for 2 1/2 weeks until he was declared brain dead on Sept. 25, 2017.

A federal lawsuit was filed recently against Kennewick School District and the school nurse alleging failure to follow Jonny’s emergency care plan and not giving the proper treatment for his life-threatening condition.

The defendants caused the 11-year-old’s pre-death pain and suffering, according to the suit.

School officials knew about Jonny’s persistent asthma and received a doctor’s note that morning stating the student was not to participate in exercise or spend time outdoors while the air was smoky from multiple Northwest fires.

Gallery cable smoke
A pedestrian strides across the cable bridge in 2017 with a hazy and smoke-filled backdrop on the Kennewick side of of the Columbia River. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald file

But school nurse Tamara Vasquez didn’t notify the PE teacher when she sent an email updating Jonny’s condition to relevant staff.

Then when Jonny went to her office for help, the nurse gave him one inhaler puff from his emergency medication, instead of two puffs per his individual health plan, and sent him back to PE class, according to the lawsuit.

Discolored in the face and wheezing

Vasquez also did not write down in the file that she had treated Jonny, and she didn’t alert his parents to his symptoms, the lawsuit states.

By the time Jonny was picked up after school, he was discolored in the face, wheezing and having difficulty breathing.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation because the school was on notice because of the life-threatening situation of (Jonny) and they blew it. They didn’t communicate with the PE teacher and this aggravated his condition,” said Jim Sweetser, a Spokane attorney handling the lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

“It was so preventable and the school blew it, and I hope they’ll step up to the plate and try to make it right.”

The suit was brought by parents Maria M. Torres and Jamie Valencia, and Manuel Banda, who is the personal representative of the child’s estate.

It cites a Washington state law that says school districts must provide in-service training on symptoms, treatment and monitoring of students with asthma, and adopt policies for asthma rescue procedures.

Kennewick School District
Kennewick School District officials said Friday they have not yet been served with the federal lawsuit, which was filed March 13. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

It also references Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is geared toward students with physical or mental impairments and ensuring their fair treatment at school with customized education plans.

Jonny’s life-threatening asthma affected his breathing and respiratory system, and made him a qualified person with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, the lawsuit states.

Wrongful death claim filed

“Jonny Torres had a protected life and liberty interest in safe care and supervision, and the right to a public education is a constitutionally protected right,” the suit says.

The Kennewick School District and the nurse deprived him of those civil rights by creating a danger that he would not have otherwise faced, it alleges.

Smoke from wildfires in Canada and Northern Washington is causing unhealthy air quality in the Tri-Cities.

A wrongful death claim was filed with the district in June 2018. Sweetser said they did not recommend a dollar amount for damages on the claim.

The district never responded, he said.

Robyn Chastain, the district’s executive director of communications and public relations, said Friday that they had not yet been served with a lawsuit.

“We wouldn’t comment on any kind of pending litigation,” she added.

Capture NASA smoke from space 0906
An image from NASA shows heavy smoke blanketing the Pacific Northwest on Sept. 6, 2017. Courtesy NASA

Court records show the suit was filed March 13. Once the school district receives the summons, it has 21 days to answer the complaint.

Vasquez now goes by Tamara Brun and is still employed at Highlands Middle School, according to the school’s website.

The Washington state Department of Health’s website also lists her as Tamara Brun, not Vasquez, and shows she is a registered nurse with no enforcement action since she first got her nursing assistance certification in 1994.

Still grieving son’s death

Sweetser told the Tri-City Herald on Friday that the family is still grieving the unexpected death. Jonny’s parents felt so helpless as they watched their son suffer and die, he said.

The Tri-Cities was blanketed with smoke in September 2017 from wildfires raging across Washington, along with Oregon and Idaho.

Air quality was stuck at “very unhealthy” for days, and the Benton Clean Air Agency was advising everyone to stay indoors and do only light activities.

Air quality is very unhealthy. If you cannot stay inside wear a face mask.

Jonny stayed home from school on Sept. 5 and 6 that year because of the thick smoke, then was cleared by his doctor to return Sept. 7 with restrictions.

The lawsuit states that nurse Vasquez was supposed to develop a step-by-step action plan upon his return, and notify all relevant teachers and school employees of Torres’ condition and proper care.

Jonny’s health plan noted that his symptoms could change quickly, and that he was to be given two puffs every four hours from a backup inhaler provided to the school.

“The relationship between a school and its students is not a voluntary relationship. The child is compelled to attend school,” the lawsuit states. “... The result is that the protective custody of teacher is mandatorily substituted for that of the parent.”

‘Help me’ in shallow breaths

When Jonny got home, he began vomiting and repeating the words “Help me” in shallow breaths.

He had no audible breath sounds and was involuntarily seizing once paramedics arrived, and was pale and cold to the touch with an internal fever by the time he got to Trios Southridge Hospital, the lawsuit says.

Jonny went into respiratory arrest as he was being flown to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, and was placed on a ventilator.

The Tri-Cities’ air quality was rated “very unhealthy” in September 2017 due to dense smoke from wildfires across Washington state and in British Columbia, Oregon and Idaho. Tri-City Herald File

The boy’s “progression to brain death was complicated by occasional spontaneous movements” seen by both family members and the medical team, according to the lawsuit.

He was removed from life support after 18 days.

Sweetser claims the school district began looking for an attorney that same month, and the day after Jonny’s death required his teachers to comply with directives to remove all grades and comments from the student’s files.

The district put together its own file on Jonny the following month and provided it to a Pacific Northwest company that specializes in risk management services, he said.

“As we’re having more climate change and having these fires, schools are going to have to step up to the plate when they know children have asthmatic conditions that can be life threatening,” said Sweetser, “and make sure there are communications between doctors, nurses and all school personnel that are tasked with keeping children safe.”

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Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.