The Vancouver School Board has quietly settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that raised questions about the role class size and composition — key issues in the ongoing B.C. teachers' strike — might have played in a 2009 incident that left a Grade 5 student with brain damage. 

The board reached the deal in May, agreeing to pay $1.7 million to the family of a girl at Henry Hudson Elementary School.

The out-of-court settlement before the case went to trial leaves unexplored the full extent that class size and composition might have played in the incident, but the court file shows it emerged as an issue during examinations for discovery.

According to documents filed with B.C. Supreme Court, Bezawit Chanyalew was an "engaged, social, friendly" 10-year-old before having a sudden cardiac arrest during the gym class on April 24, 2009.

It took several minutes for emergency workers to revive her, during which time she suffered a brain injury due to lack of oxygen. The incident left her with severe cognitive, physical disabilities and facing years of intense rehabilitation.

Acting on the 10-year-old's behalf, B.C.'s public guardian and trustee sued, claiming the school failed to act on a fax sent two days before the incident.  The fax said the girl had a heart condition known as long QT syndrome, which can result in seizures or unexpected death during strenuous activity.

Entire class witnessed collapse

In her examination for discovery, teacher Holly Paris said Chanyalew collapsed while running a leg of a 100-metre relay. The whole Grade 5 class witnessed the incident.

"I saw her stumble and fall, and then stand up again. And then stumble and fall again," she said. "And when I got to her, she looked like she was convulsing, and her eyes were rolling back."

Scott Stanley, the lawyer for Bezawit. specifically commented that Paris seemed to be teaching a "very large class."

Paris replied that she had between 28 and 30 students, three of whom had autism and "at least one or two that were diagnosed with severe learning disabilities."

Paris said she had one school support worker. 

"And did you make any complaint to the principal about having so many designated children?" Stanley asked.

"In the consultation process at the beginning of the year, I had," Paris replied.

"And nothing was done about that?" Stanley asked.

Paris responded, "It's a provincial issue."

Class size and composition

Class size, class composition and support for special needs students are among the most significant stumbling blocks in the stalled negotiations between teachers and the B.C. government. 

In January, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered the province to pay $2 million in damages for removing the teachers' collective rights to bargain on those three issues in 2002 — and for failing to reinstate them when ordered by the court in April 2013. The government is appealing that ruling.

In her discovery, Paris acknowledged receiving the fax warning. She said she had previously been aware Bezawit had a heart condition and had discussed participation in physical education with both the girl and her mother.

The school board said the settlement money comes from insurance funds. The board wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case.

Read a copy of the notice of civil claim. On mobile? Click here

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said Bezawit Chanyalew, 10, suffered a heart attack. In fact, documents filed with B.C. Supreme Court said she had a sudden cardiac arrest.
    Sep 05, 2014 8:06 AM PT