MIAMI — As high school football players around the country gear up for practices in the searing heat, two families in Southern states whose sons died last summer after strenuous workouts are suing in hopes of holding school officials accountable.
The two 16-year-olds, Isaiah Laurencin in Florida and Don’terio J. Searcy in Georgia, were among five high school students who collapsed after exerting themselves in high temperatures last year and later died.
Their parents say the pressure to train hard even in high temperatures and humidity, in some cases as often as three times a day, was central to their sons’ deaths. They blame school leaders and coaches, who they say could have done more to protect the boys during practice by employing more stringent safeguards against heat exertion, as the National Football League and college teams have done.
Instead, the coaches pushed the boys too hard to produce winning teams and did not take precautions, the parents said. Both schools — Miramar High School in Florida and Fitzgerald High School in Georgia — have prominent football programs.
“As a parent, you protect them from hurt, harm and danger,” said Angela Cooper, Isaiah’s mother. “You put him in the hands of people you trust. But that is not what it’s about. It’s about winning.”
The two boys were being closely watched by recruiters around the country. Isaiah, who weighed 286 pounds and was expected to be an offensive lineman, died on July 27 last year, hours after he collapsed following preseason drills on July 26.
Don’terio, a junior defensive lineman, died the morning of Aug. 2 last year in his cabin at a northern Florida football camp run by the Fitzgerald High School coaching staff. He had been practicing three times a day and had fallen ill and passed out on Aug. 1, said his father, Capt. Carlton Searcy of the Army. Still, he attended morning practice the next day, Captain Searcy said, and then collapsed.
'We have to do something'
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer who also represents the family of Trayvon Martin, filed paperwork in court on Monday stating that Ms. Cooper intended to sue the Broward County School Board. The Searcy family filed notice the same day that they planned to sue Ben Hill County, where Fitzgerald High School is.
The Broward school board and the Ben Hill County Board of Supervisors declined to comment on the pending lawsuits.
“At what point do you say we got to quit having this happen and we have to take this seriously?” Mr. Crump asked. “We have to do something to get high school officials’ attention.”
In a period of less than 20 years, 40 high school football players have died from heat stroke, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. The numbers have increased in the past decade, the center found.
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Last month, Nicholas Dellaventura, 15, had trouble breathing and speaking during a preseason conditioning session on Staten Island. He died at the hospital later that night; autopsy reports have proved inconclusive.
Most of the deaths have taken place during initial summer workouts, when the heat index is high and players are out of shape, said Lesley Vandermark of the Korey Stringer Institute, which seeks to prevent deaths in sports, particularly heat-related ones. Mr. Stringer, who played for the Minnesota Vikings, died of heat stroke after a practice in 2001.
Most of these deaths are preventable, Ms. Vandermark said, adding that high school coaches need to be better educated about heat stroke and need to move slowly into conditioning sessions. No pads should be used during the practices, which should be short at midday. Teams should also have cooling devices on hand to lower body temperature.
“Unfortunately, states don’t want to make better guidelines until something catastrophic happens,” Ms. Vandermark said.
Don’terio’s death did prompt changes in Georgia. This summer, the Georgia High School Association implemented a new heat policy that includes $500 to $1,000 fines for schools that fail to adhere to it. The new policy bans three-a-day practices and the use of pads in the first week, and it calls for the use of a wet bulb globe thermometer to measure temperature, humidity and the effects of the sun.
In Florida, which has less stringent requirements to prevent heat-related deaths, it is up to parents and students to ensure that the rules are followed, said Corey Sobers of the Florida High School Athletic Association.
The deaths are sometimes complicated by other factors, too, which make these cases legally difficult to pursue.
Isaiah’s autopsy report found that he had sickle cell trait anemia, which can make a body susceptible to heat stroke. His mother said she was unaware of this. In 2010, he collapsed during a summer training session and spent several days in the hospital. The family asked his doctor if he could continue to play, and the answer was yes, Ms. Cooper said. Other factors in his death were hypertension and asthma, the report said.
Don’terio’s cause of death was heart failure due to an undiagnosed heart ailment. But “heat is always in the equation,” Mr. Crump said. “If heat isn’t in the equation, these guys don’t die.”
Robbie Brown contributed reporting from Atlanta.
This story,"Families of Athletes to Sue Over Heat-Related Deaths," originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times