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School Cleared on Teen’s Physics Class Drowning

HOUSTON (CN) - The parents of a teenager who drowned during a physics class cannot advance due-process claims against the school district, a federal judge ruled.

Vincent Agwuoke, 17, drowned at Westside High School in April 2008 after he and a group of students completed a physics experiment in the school's natatorium.

Westside physics teacher Vanessa Coronado and another teacher, Troy Gillespie, had organized the natatorium experiment.

After building boats with cardboard and duct tape, the students were supposed to test the boats for buoyancy in the shallow end of the school pool. The experiment required one student to sit in the boat, while a classmate stood in the water, guiding the boat across the pool.

Coronado had emailed the students' parents twice regarding the experiment.

Agwuoke could not swim, but neither Agwuoke nor his parents shared this information with Coronado in response to her email. The teen's parents say Westside knew that Agwuoke could not swim since they communicated this fact in a 2005 pre-participation physical evaluation form on file with the school's athletic department.

Coronado did not know this, however, and would not have received or seen documents directed to the athletics department.

Before the experiment began, Coronado instructed the students not to go in the pool if they could not swim.

Though several students did not participate in the experiment because they did not want to get in the pool, Agwuoke was not among this group.

Agwuoke exited the pool safely even after the boat carrying him and three other classmates had capsized.

Video from the school's security camera shows that Agwuoke was among the group of students who began jumping into the deep end of the pool after class had ended.

Agwuoke never surfaced, however, and Coronado dove in with another student to pull the boy from the water. He was declared dead at the hospital.

In a federal complaint filed by Agwuoke's parents and estate, the Houston Independent School District is the sole remaining defendant. U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal granted it summary judgment Wednesday, rejecting claims that it violated their son's constitutional right to due process.

Rosenthal found that the state-created danger theory would not hold up in the 5th Circuit as the Agwuokes contended.

"This case is not a basis for finding liability under this doctrine for this first time in this circuit," Rosenthal wrote.

The school district continues to face claims over the drowning of a 9-year-old student at an elementary school two months later. Rosenthal presides over that case as well.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Agwuoke, the only son of Nigerian immigrants, had been weighing acceptance offers from Baylor University and East Texas Baptist University, which had given him a scholarship to study medicine.

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