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Injury Suit Cites Language Gap : Diver Hurt Because He Could Not Understand Teacher, Lawyer Says

October 13, 1985|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

A lawsuit filed by a former Hollywood High School student who was permanently paralyzed after diving into a school swimming pool last May has raised questions about the safety of immigrant students unable to understand English instructions in their physical education classes.

An attorney representing 17-year-old Morris Mejia has charged that the El Salvadoran emigre could have executed a racing dive properly and avoided serious injury if he had fully understood the instructions of his swimming teacher. But attorney Harlan Arnold said the youth's English comprehension was minimal on May 9 when he attempted the dive during a swimming class at Hollywood High.

"This young lad and others in his class spoke little or no English," Arnold said. "He did not have a clear understanding of exactly how to perform that dive."

Hollywood High officials and Los Angeles Unified School District administrators declined to talk about the details of the lawsuit. But district officials insisted that schools such as Hollywood, which have large immigrant student populations, are limited by budgetary constraints and the lack of bilingual teachers and interpreters.

Paralyzed From Neck Down

The dive left the youth with a broken neck and a severed spinal cord, Arnold said. Permanently paralyzed from the neck down and often breathing with the aid of a respirator, Mejia is undergoing convalescent therapy at Rancho Los Amigos, a rehabilitation hospital in Downey.

The lawsuit was filed July 11 against the Los Angeles Unified School District, Hollywood High, Principal Willard Hansen, swimming instructor James McNicholas and a lifeguard, Juergen Nicklas. The suit also names several unidentified firms involved in building and servicing the school's swimming pool.

In addition to the charges about Mejia's lack of English comprehension, Arnold has claimed that a diving block that Mejia used was wobbly and loose, that the school's swimming pool leaked and was from 9 to 12 inches below its normal level and that Mejia was given improper medical treatment as he was lifted from the pool.

Physical Education Guidelines

Asking for unspecified damages, the lawsuit charges the school officials with negligence in not giving the youth proper English instruction and failing to take adequate measures to repair the leak and wobbly diving block. The suit also charges the unnamed firms with failing to properly build and maintain the pool and pool area.

According to Arnold, Hollywood High violated the Los Angeles Unified School District's own guidelines on physical education by failing to provide Mejia with proper instruction in his swimming class. Arnold said that those guidelines require that all students taking physical education courses must be able to "communicate with fellow participants and instructors."

Arnold suggested that when Mejia entered Hollywood High in September, 1984, he knew very little English. Dolores Alvarado Mejia, the youth's mother, said he had been given two hours a week of English instruction in El Salvador. But she had not seen him regularly since she left El Salvador in 1978 and came to Hollywood to work as a housekeeper.

Her son followed her to Los Angeles in 1983, where he joined her and another son, Hector, in a small apartment on Whitley Avenue, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Morris Mejia started 10th grade classes at Hollywood in September, 1984.

"He wanted to graduate and go into the military," Dolores Mejia said through an interpreter. "He prayed to God that he could get into the Army."

According to Arnold, Morris Mejia failed his course in English as a second language and was forced to take it over again in his second semester. The English-as-a-second-language program places newly arrived immigrant students in intensive English language courses while allowing them to take other basic classes, such as physical education and art. Once they have reached acceptable levels of English comprehension, they can transfer into a school's regular program.

But at Hollywood High, a school with a majority immigrant population speaking at least 34 languages other than English, the teaching of America's native tongue does not proceed easily. Some classes have students from several different nations, often forcing teachers to instruct in English with the hope that their message gets across.

According to Arnold, that situation led directly to Morris Mejia's accident. "They (school officials and teachers charged in the suit) violated their duty," Arnold said. "There was no communication. Five of his classmates told us in depositions that they would just watch their (instructors') movements and expressions and follow suit. It was monkey see, monkey do."

On the morning of May 9, in his second-period physical education class, Morris Mejia's classmates began practicing racing dives, Arnold said. Mejia, Arnold added, had never practiced the dive before.

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