South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | March 25, 2021
Kedar Williams couldn’t save himself from choking to death at school, but his memory may help save the lives of many other disabled students.
A year and a half after Williams, a 19-year-old student with autism, died at his high school while not being watched, the Palm Beach County School Board has agreed to pay his family $2 million.
The settlement, approved Wednesday, also sets up a mandatory training program named in Williams’ honor for principals, teachers and others employees who work with special needs students.
“His parents are pleased not only with the settlement, but they are most proud of the fact they fought for their son and fought for a training program designed to address the deficiencies that led to Kedar’s death,” said Sia Baker-Barnes, a lawyer who represents his mother, Megan Williams, and estate.
On Aug. 13, 2019, Kedar Williams, who attended a program for special needs students at William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after choking on a chicken nugget.
Williams had a form of autism that made him mostly non-verbal, speaking only a few words. He also had a condition that made him prone to aspiration, or choking. At age 11, he nearly died from a choking incident.
His individual education plan required that he have an aide assigned just to him. The aide was to watch him closely while eating, cutting up his food if needed, Baker-Barnes said. The condition also caused him to have around-the-clock care at home.
When the new school year started in August 2019, the school didn’t have enough staff to serve its students, the lawyer said. Unbeknownst to his mother, Dwyer High had one aide supervising two high needs students. The employee was attending to the other student at lunch and wasn’t watching Williams, video revealed.
Williams ate a large chunk of the chicken nugget, causing him to aspirate and have a seizure. He was transported to Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, where he soon died.
“Having your son wave goodbye to you in the morning, before school, and then never seeing him alive again is a mother’s worst nightmare. Our family has a gaping hole without Kedar in our lives,” his mother, Megan Williams, said in a statement.
The ordeal has also been traumatic for his father, Jeffrey Williams, a teacher in Polk County, who filed a separate lawsuit but will share in the $2 million settlement.
“He’s around children every day, so this is a reminder of the loss he feels,” said Salesia Smith-Gorden, a lawyer for the father.
Normally, there’s a cap of $300,000 for negligence or liability cases, unless a claims bill is filed in the Legislature, allowing a larger payout. That process can take years.
But the plaintiffs in this case filed a lawsuit in federal court, in addition to state court, citing a violation of federal protections for students with disabilities. That enabled them to collect a larger settlement without the Legislature.
“While no amount of money will ever take away the pain caused by this tragedy, the School District of Palm Beach County hopes that the settlement reached with the Williams family will help to ease the burden of this tremendous loss,” district spokeswoman Claudia Shea said in a statement.
Photo: Kedar Williams, a student at William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, died of choking in August 2019. The Palm Beach County School District has agreed to pay his family $2 million, pending approval from the state Legislature. (Handout/Handout)