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High School Blew off Concussions, Teen Says

PITTSBURGH (CN) - A teen-ager claims his high school football coach sent him back into a game with traumatic brain injury after a concussion, despite complaints from teammates about his "incoherent condition." And when his injuries became so debilitating they affected his grades, the principal said he could fix that with a "shake of his magic wand," in an "overt" and "unethical" offer to change his grades, according to the federal complaint.

Zachary Alt, now 19, sued the Highlands School District, Highland High School Principal Thomas Shirey, Assistant Principal Walt Hanslik, head football coach Sam Albert, and athletic trainer Mike Russo.

Alt says Albert displayed "flagrant inaction" by failing to evaluate him after a particularly vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, which left him "clearly disoriented" and "aimlessly walk[ing]" the sidelines.

Alt says his teammates "immediately recognized that something was awry with the plaintiff," but Albert ordered him back into the game, issuing him a "violent instruction" to "blow up" the other team's middle linebacker: "Defendant Albert instructed the plaintiff to 'blow him up', referring to the type of violence with which he wanted plaintiff Alt to strike the opposition's middle linebacker," the complaint states.

"In delivering this order, defendant Albert personally observed the disorientated and confused disposition of the plaintiff, yet acted in deliberate indifference to the health, safety and welfare of the plaintiff by placing him back onto the field of play. ...

"This violent instruction from defendant Albert is the plaintiff's last memory of the game."

Alt, playing fullback, says that on the first offensive play after his initial injury, Albert sent him in to lead the blocking against the middle linebacker. He adds: "this type of blocking scheme usually leads to an explosive one-on-one collision between the fullback and the middle linebacker."

Unsurprisingly, Alt says, he was rocked again, but Albert left him in the game, with "deliberate indifference" to his health and safety.

"Plaintiff does not recollect the remainder of the game.

"However, based upon information later disclosed to the plaintiff by his teammates, plaintiff's condition worsened throughout the game and he was described to be acting in a 'drunken state'.

"In fear for plaintiff's health, safety and welfare, at least two of his teammates approached defendant Albert during the course of the game and advised him of plaintiff's incoherent condition. In response, defendant Albert did nothing.

"This deliberate indifference to alerts and/or communications between he and his

players regarding their health and the health of their teammates was a practice, custom or policy maintained by defendant Albert."

Alt says it is "unexplainable how a teammate was able to recognize the seriousness of plaintiff's injuries while defendant Russo, an athletic trainer, failed to do the same."

Alt says the professional incompetence did not end on the field. Albert's and Russ's initial post-game plan was "to require plaintiff Alt to ride the bus back to school with his team," the complaint states. Then they decided that Russo, the trainer, would take Alt home.

"Upon defendant Russo's arrival with the plaintiff to his home, defendant Russo joked that plaintiff was wandering all over the place and that he was acting funny.

"Defendant Russo then laughed as he explained that the plaintiff was repeating the same several comments during the entirety of the trip from the game to plaintiff's home.


"Even after observing the plaintiff in this vulnerable state, defendant Russo failed to understand the risks associated with plaintiff's injuries, and suggested to plaintiff's mother that she should just 'put him to bed.'

"Understanding the ignorance with which defendant Russo was handling the seriousness of plaintiff's injuries, plaintiff's mother immediately transported the plaintiff to the emergency room at Alle-Kiski Medical Center in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania.

"It was later communicated to Megan Alt by one of plaintiff's treating physicians that had she followed the advice of defendant Russo and 'put him to bed', plaintiff would have most likely fallen into a comatose state."

The hospital found that Alt had suffered "a substantial closed head injury."

Alt says he "continues to suffer from serious and potentially permanent effects of this closed head injury."

"In fact, for well over the past three (3) years, the plaintiff has been forced to receive medical treatment from numerous medical providers and medical facilities in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of the traumatic head injury which was caused by the aforesaid acts of the defendants."

Alts says his injuries include "a. Serious brain injuries; b. Significant cognitive deficiencies; c. Depression; d. Frequent loss of balance; e. Post-traumatic amnesia; f. Short-term memory deficiencies; g. Increased anxiety; h. Emotional instability; i. Behavioral instability; j. Periodic insomnia; k. Periodic hypersomnia; l. Increased aggression; m. Consistent vomiting associated with nausea; n. Fatigue; o. Blurred vision; p. Sudden fever and sweats; q. Debilitating headaches; r. Dizziness; and, s. A resulting impairment of earning capacity."

But his ordeal did not end there, Alt says. When he requested accommodations at school - including that he be allowed to carry a water bottle into the classroom - he was "met with resistance and ridicule."

Alt says his medical condition deteriorated rapidly, and his grades tanked so badly that he feared he would not pass tenth grade.

That's when the principal acted unprofessionally and unethically, Alt says.

"Instead of proposing and/or instituting policies to aid the plaintiff's efforts in obtaining an education, defendant Shirey suggested that he could improve plaintiff's grades with a 'shake of his magic wand'.

"This overt offer to fabricate and/or manipulate plaintiff's grades was unprofessional, unethical and in deliberate indifference to the welfare of the plaintiff.

"Moreover, this overt offer to fabricate and/or manipulate Plaintiff's grades was an adopted practice, custom or policy in deliberate indifference to the level of education administered to Highlands' students, including the plaintiff," the complaint states.

Alt says he began missing a considerable amount of school, but, "Unexplainably, plaintiff concluded his school year with nearly straight As.

"This was quite curious because even prior to his traumatic head injuries, plaintiff had never achieved such consistent grades at this high-performance level.

"Plaintiff believes and avers that these grades were not indicative of his academic performance and were exaggerated to simply move plaintiff through to his junior year.

"In actuality, plaintiff did not earn a tenth grade education.

"Evidenced by an adopted practice, custom or policy in deliberate indifference to the welfare of its students, plaintiff avers that the grades he received in both his junior and senior year at Highlands High School were also manipulated to allow him to graduate."

Alt says that as a junior, he "missed an estimated ninety (90) days of school; a near fifty percent (50%) absence rate for the school year. Yet, plaintiff continued to receive grades well above the passing standard established by defendant Highlands School District."

Concerned about his performance, Alt says he "approached his teacher and asked what he could do to improve his overall grade in the respective course."

"Without hesitation, each teacher plainly opened his/her grade book and improved the plaintiff's current grade from a failing mark to a passing mark," according to the complaint.

He says he "personally witnessed the manipulation and alteration of his grades on at least two occasions at Highlands High School."

Despite receiving a diploma, Alt says, he "possesses an education which is well below a tenth grade level," causing "a permanent diminution of his earning power and capacity."

Alt demands damages for constitutional violations, bodily injury, violation of the school's special relationship to him, violation of his right to an education, and other charges.

He is represented by Robert Pierce III of Pittsburgh.

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