The day Jeffrey Bowman collapsed during football practice air quality monitors in the valley reported unhealthy conditions. Bigfork High School coaches, however, weren’t the only ones who deemed it safe to run drills: All but possibly one of the area’s five other public high schools held outdoor practice on Aug. 13.
Bowman, 17, died a week later. The school district hired Elizabeth Kaleva, a Missoula attorney who specializes in school law, to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death.
Her 24-page report released last week was met with harsh criticism from the Bowman family and silence from the school district. It also raised plenty of questions about who, if anyone, is responsible for the student’s death.
One of the family’s biggest contentions was the report’s failure to investigate whether practice should have been held at all that day. “The decision by the school and its hand-picked attorney not to include that issue in the report is an admission of guilt. They knew at the time, and they know now, that they should not have practiced our children in that dangerous air and heat,” Troy and Bob Bowman, parents of Jeffrey, said in a written response issued the day Kaleva’s report was released to the public.
According to the report, the scope of the investigation was limited to whether the district complied with rules regarding physicals and whether the coaches’ response to Bowman’s collapse was appropriate. It acknowledges that the cause of Bowman’s death was not addressed, including the effects of smoke and heat conditions that day, but doesn’t say why this information was excluded.
State agencies do not keep hourly air quality or temperature measurements in Bigfork, but the Department of Environmental Quality has 24-hour monitors in Kalispell and Whitefish. On Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. – the approximate time of Bowman’s collapse – air quality in Kalispell and Whitefish was “unhealthy.” Kalispell’s measurement of particulate matter at that time, 176 micrograms per cubic meter, was the highest measurement recorded that day. According to the National Weather Service it was 85 degrees in Kalispell at 8 p.m. Only the day’s high and low temperatures are recorded in Bigfork.
While a satellite photo taken of the state that night shows a large plume of smoke evenly covering the Flathead Valley, DEQ meteorologist John Coefield said that conditions can change quickly and differ drastically as little as two to three miles away, so comparing readings in Kalispell and Whitefish to Bigfork is a likely estimate but not a certainty.
The “unhealthy” category is the third of five ranging from moderate to hazardous, and can aggravate the conditions of those with heart or lung disease. In such conditions, people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid prolonged exertion, while everyone else should limit it. Avoiding exertion altogether isn’t recommended for people outside of the sensitive groups until the “very unhealthy” level.
In the report, Bigfork head coach Bruce Crobett said, “based on visibility (that night), they (the coaches) agreed that it was OK to continue practicing but they altered the workout.” The lowest visibility measurement reported by the NWS at the Kalispell airport that day was 1.75 miles at 7:02 p.m. Visibility at 7:55 p.m. that day was recorded at 3 miles. According to the DEQ, visibility from 5 miles to 2.2 miles represents the “unhealthy” category; 2.1 miles to 1.3 miles is considered “very unhealthy” visibility.
According to area activities directors, other coaches at the valley’s high schools made similar adjustments through the smoky weeks but did not cancel practices. While smoke was a concern and frequently monitored by checking visibility and health department advisories, outdoor practices were never canceled at Flathead, Glacier, Whitefish or Columbia Falls high schools this year. Practices were moved indoors at Polson High School during a week in August.
A cardiopulmonary specialist said it is unlikely smoke and heat alone would cause an otherwise healthy individual to go into sudden cardiac arrest, but that those conditions and vigorous exercise do make it more probable. Bowman’s cause of death has not been released.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends that an Automated External Defibrillator(AED) be readily available at any athletic event, and according to the American Heart Association there is a 74 percent survival rate if people receive treatment within three to five minutes after suffering from a cardiac arrest.
The school’s AED was not on the field the night Bowman collapsed. Kaleva’s report suggested the district establish protocol for storage and use of the machine, and provide training for the staff on its use.
The amount of time it took for coaches to come to Bowman’s aid is contested. Kaleva said that of the 37 interviews and submitted written statements in the report, 14 people didn’t witness the event enough to comment on the coaches’ response. Of the remaining 23 witnesses, 19 people shared similar testimony in the report of the events on the field: Bowman collapsed on the field during an evening practice, coaches reached him within a minute and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation almost immediately. They continued CPR until paramedics arrived. Kaleva said four witnesses, none of whom saw Bowman stop running, estimated Bowman was on the ground for two to three minutes before the first coach responded.
Kaleva concluded that coaches responded “appropriately.”
The Bowmans disagree. “In order to reach her conclusion, the school’s lawyer apparently decided to simply ignore the statements of three critical eyewitnesses,” and attempts to discredit the testimony of a fourth, their statement read.
Kaleva’s report and the Bowman family agree on one count: The school allowed Bowman to practice despite his not having completed a required sports physical. According to the report, the school was breaking in a new system for collecting the physicals and coaches confused Bowman with another student. The school was fined $50 by the Montana High School Association(MHSA) last week for violating the rule.
Mark Beckman, executive director of the MHSA, said it’s the first time he’s penalized a school for allowing a player to participate without a physical examination in the 3 1/2 years he’s been executive director. He doesn’t remember any similar incidents being reported in the 11 years he’s been with the association.
A form developed by the MHSA Medical Advisory Committee must be used for all physicals. According to the form and an area physician, a sports physical includes checking height, weight, blood pressure, pulse, vision, reflexes, nose, ears, eyes and, for males, testicles. Doctors also listen to the heart and lungs for irregularities, and do further testing if any abnormalities are heard. The physician said there is no way to tell if a sports physical would have caught any cardio or respiratory problems Bowman may have had.
The Bigfork School District and the Bowman family have been thrown into uncharted territory together; neither Beckman nor Montana Superintendent of Schools Linda McCulloch recalled any instance similar to this in state history. And, until the school and the family are able to reach a consensus over the circumstances of Jeffrey Bowman’s death, the two will likely remain a contentious pair.
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