Aug. 13, 2014, was a typical warm, sticky summer day. Sebastian-area resident William Shogran, a drug-interdiction specialist with the Florida Highway Patrol, was training in Miami with his partner and a drug-sniffing dog.
Shogran’s son, William Jr., 14, a home-schooler, was at Camp Blanding, a National Guard training center in north-central Florida. William Jr., was with the Sebastian River High School varsity football team, having paid $150 to attend preseason camp.
William Jr. had joined the team for one reason, his father said: to get a physical education credit required to graduate from high school. Though he’d played soccer and baseball when he was younger, William Jr., hadn’t played other organized team sports, though he liked wrestling workouts and riding bicycles with his father.
The third call from fire-rescue personnel was one the trooper understood too well.
“They explained to me … they normally don’t tell you on the phone, which I understood … that he had passed away,” Shogran said.
Shogran’s comments were made in a deposition for his lawsuit against the Indian River County School District. The lawsuit alleges the district was negligent in his son’s death.
The lawsuit, filed June 3, 2016, raises troubling questions about whether William Jr.’s death, probably from heat stroke, could have been prevented and how school officials responded after his passing.
After perusing several hundred pages of deposition testimony in the case, one thing is more clear than others: William Jr., was universally liked.
“He was such a sweet boy,” Hillary Lange, the school’s athletic trainer who met him during spring practice, said in a deposition. “He would always help me with whatever, like trying to get the water out.”
Instead, then-coach Kevin Pettis, who resigned in February 2017 to take a job in Tallahassee, and his assistant coaches said they helped William Jr. take off his helmet and pads, put him in the shade and tried to cool him down with water and ice before calling emergency officials at 10:47 a.m.
Why there wasn’t an athletic trainer on the trip and why Pettis, despite bringing heavy football equipment such as blocking sleds, didn’t bring the school’s portable ice bath, are among questions raised by Shogran’s attorney, Michael Hersh of Fort Lauderdale.
And he raises several other issues.
School officials publicly appeared to handle things well after William Jr. died. They celebrated his life at the school and retired his jersey number, 72. But, according to Shogran, they didn’t release all the details of what led to his son’s death.
A law enforcement report released three months after William Jr.’s death suggested he vomited several times in the hours before he passed out, Shogran said. What’s more, William Jr. had to go on a “dawn patrol” run at 5:45 a.m., where he vomited multiple times, students reportedly told law enforcement.
Dawn patrol was not mandatory, Pettis said in a deposition. The mile run was for players who missed earlier summer workouts. Shogran said he never knew his son, who missed workouts to attend church camps, was going to have to run dawn patrol.
The lawsuit questions why coaches didn’t keep William Jr. out of practice after he got sick. In depositions, several coaches said they did not know William Jr. vomited before team practice. Pettis, who ran dawn patrol, said William Jr., threw up only once, on a teammate’s sheets in the barracks. Pettis said William Jr., told him he drank too much water at breakfast.
The inconsistencies require further review.
“The Shograns did not think of, or care to, file suit after this incident,” Hersh told me. “Certain coaches told them a story following the incident that later did not match up with what was reported in the police investigation, including the various statements from various players. The Shograns felt that the school was failing to tell them the entirety of the story, or perhaps the truth, and so they felt compelled to seek counsel.”
Stutzke testified he never did his own formal investigation of the matter because he thought his staff handled things properly. When I asked the Indian River County School District whether it investigated, I was told the school follows all state and federal high school athletics policies. Other than that, it would not comment because of the litigation.
Could this litigation have been avoided had the district thoroughly investigated the facts surrounding the death and reported the results to Shogran and the community? Perhaps.
All too often, though, it seems the district would rather try to avoid liability by keeping information secret. Its lack of transparency in the case of Vero Beach High School’s controversial senior class president election was the most recent example.
Such lack of transparency jeopardizes the district’s credibility with potential plaintiffs and the community. Not everyone is after money. Some people just seek the truth and to improve the community.
What’s worse in this case is the district’s request to dismiss Shogran’s case because he’d signed a document, which the Florida High School Athletic Association requires all student-athletes to sign, waiving his right to litigate over inherent risks in sports. Hersh’s pleadings show the case is about the district’s negligence, not the inherent risks of a sport.
“I was trusting that the school had my child’s best interests and that they would be responsible and reliable enough that everything would be OK,” Shogran told Allen Sang, the district’s Winter Park attorney in a deposition.
Don’t we all?
Hersh continues to do his own investigation into William Jr.’s death and plans to take depositions of his teammates. Those interviews will be critical in giving us a more complete perspective on what happened that day.
Such a perspective is needed to determine whether the district must change procedures to ensure there are no more tragedies like the one that claimed William Shogran Jr.