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The Deep End of the Pool

A Lifeguard Trial Tests the Boundaries of Responsibility for a University and its Employees

The boundaries of responsibility - a university's and its employees' - were tested in a recent trial of a lifeguard charged in the deaths of two trespassers on school property. While the lifeguard, Old Dominion University senior Travis Becker, was exonerated by Circuit Judge Joseph A. Leafe on Dec. 20, ODU's risk management policies remain under scrutiny, and further litigation is still a possibility.

The details of the case, first reported by Matthew Dolan of The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va., are many and twisted. On March 24 of last year, Becker was on duty at the ODU Health & Physical Education pool when a group of nine neighborhood teenagers entered the natatorium. Becker left his lifeguard stand to explain to them that only people affiliated with the university could use the pool. When the group wouldn't leave, Becker called security, which arrived after the teens had already left.

The next day, however, the teens returned, and again wouldn't leave the natatorium. Becker turned to subterfuge: He wrote a note to "Sarah," a lifeguard at ODU's older pool in Alfred B. Rollins Jr. Hall, asking her to allow the teens to swim there. He gave them the note, on which he drew a map to the other building. Becker said later that he knew that the Rollins pool was locked and that Sarah was out of town. Becker called security once the group had left.

Before security arrived, the teens returned, unable to get into the Rollins pool. Exasperated, and concerned that unattended youths were putting his swimmers at risk, Becker gave them a three-digit combination to the outside door of the women's locker room at Rollins. The number was wrong, and even if they managed to breach the first locked door, a locked inner door would presumably prevent them from entering the pool from the locker room. When they returned a final time to his pool, Becker assumed he had frustrated them for good, and after sending the teens on their way yet again, Becker vented some of his own frustration in an offensive (and, he admitted later, regrettable) note to his supervisor.

As far as Becker was concerned, the matter ended there. However, two swim coaches from the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, which has access to the Rollins pool, testified at Becker's trial that they discovered six teens swimming there on March 25. On April 1, a third country club employee found youths swimming at Rollins and told them to leave. Two days later, a country club employee left a message for the ODU recreational sports department, warning them that unattended teenagers were using the Rollins pool. An investigation by the university was launched within days of the tip, but action came too late. On April 8, five teens used a pair of scissors to break into the Rollins pool, and two of them - 16-year-old Darius Pentecost and 13-year-old LaTonya Drake - drowned.

In June, ODU's student judicial affairs director recommended that Becker be expelled, an order overruled by Dana D. Burnett, the university's dean of students. However, Becker, who was found guilty of failing to comply with university rules, was fired from his lifeguarding job, placed on probation for a year, banned from all university athletic facilities and ordered to complete 50 hours of community service. Later that month, a grand jury indicted Becker on nine counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Each misdemeanor charge carried a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

The December trial was brief. Although he said he was troubled by Becker's note to his supervisor, Judge Leafe told the prosecution, "I don't think there is any way to make out that the defendant is, quote, responsible. The court cannot find nearly the level of proof required for a conviction." However, Leafe went on to suggest that Becker and the university could be found responsible in a civil action.

As this issue of AB goes to press, the parents of the drowned teens - who initially pushed for grand jury charges of murder - are mulling a possible civil suit. ODU officials, in the meantime, admit they were told of the break-ins prior to the teens' deaths, but say they were in the process of conducting a thorough and responsible investigation when the deaths took place. And in the incident's aftermath, the locks at Rollins have been changed, windows sealed and an alarm system installed.

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