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LUSD, Kong family settle for $1 million in student's drowning

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Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003 10:00 pm

A wrongful death suit filed against the Lodi Unified School District after the drowning of a Tokay High School student last year has been settled for $1 million.

Chhayarong Kong died after sinking to the bottom of the swimming pool at Tokay High during a physical education class at the age of 16.

"We all felt that it was a fair settlement," LUSD Superintendent Bill Huyett said. The possibility of a lengthy and expensive trial was the main reason the district settled, he said.

The lawsuit claimed that the school district had acted negligently by not hiring lifeguards to oversee swimming students.

California law does not require schools to have lifeguards present while students are swimming, contrary to recommendations by the American Red Cross.

The lawsuit claimed that the teacher on duty had not been adequately trained in safe water practices and rescue procedures.

The teacher had been trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and in aquatic safety prior to Kong's death, said Kathy Martin, risk manager for LUSD.

Lifeguards now patrol both pools at Tokay and Lodi high schools since the adoption of an official aquatic safety program.

The sum of $1 million fell short of the amount in similar drowning cases at high schools across the state. The average settlement for such cases in California is $2.9 million, according to Judith Sperling, a risk management expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The lower settlement can be attributed to California's severe state budget crisis, said Jeffrey Silvia, the attorney that represented Kong's parents in the lawsuit. All of California's public school districts are suffering after their budgets were cut last year.

Kong's parents are planning to contribute a portion of the $1 million settlement to the Chhayarong Kong Foundation, Silvia said. The nonprofit organization was founded with the intention of aiding Cambodian students pursuing an education in the field of computer sciences and technologies.

Chhayarong Kong was a Cambodian-American citizen born in a refugee camp at the Cambodian-Thai border. His family was repatriated to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he studied until his family moved to Columbia, Md.

From Maryland, Kong transferred to Tokay High School with the hopes of studying computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He moved to California to gain residency and lower tuition at the university.

The district provided investigators with a videotape that showed the incident.

Kong drowned shortly after taking about three strokes in the fourth lane of Tokay High School's pool during his sixth-period physical education class on May 17, 2002. Kong sank to the bottom of the pool after about a minute of struggle and remained there for about four minutes. He was brought to the surface by other students in the class and students and teachers managed to partially resuscitate him.

He died the next day.

The lawsuit against the district appeared headed for trial before the two parties began talking to each other again almost three weeks ago.

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