DETROIT — In what otherwise was a tragic story, David Zauner was hailed as a hero when he jumped into the East Detroit High School pool in his dress clothes and pulled the near-lifeless body of student KeAir Swift from the bottom last autumn.
Now Zauner, a veteran teacher and basketball coach, is suing East Detroit Public Schools and assistant principal and athletic director John Rizzo, saying they retaliated against him because he cooperated with police during an investigation into the Nov. 8 incident.
KeAir, a 14-year-old from Detroit, died in the hospital four days later and criminal charges were brought against a substitute teacher supervising the pool.
Zauner is "entitled to millions of dollars in damages," according to the whistle-blower's lawsuit filed in Macomb County Circuit Court. The suit claims the district and Rizzo made up a bogus paper trail to later suspend or terminate Zauner because he had cooperated with investigators.
"The defendants' retaliatory conduct is utterly reprehensible in our society, especially given that David Zauner is the one person that did everything within his power to save the life of KeAir Swift," said Thomas Warnicke, an employment law attorney representing Zauner.
Sherry Taylor, an attorney representing the district and Rizzo, said she was not at liberty to make a comment and that her clients would not be commenting at this time.
No trial date has been set. Warnicke said the defendants' response is due by July 9.
Substitute teacher Johnathan Sails is facing trial in Macomb County Circuit Court on a felony charge of involuntary manslaughter.
During an earlier court hearing, witnesses testified Sails was sitting in the bleachers, fully clothed, during the class. They said he at first hesitated, then went into a changing area to remove his clothes, and once he jumped into the water, said it was too deep to rescue the boy. Meanwhile, Zauner, hearing the commotion, came from a different area, jumped into the pool fully clothed and pulled KeAir from the water.
The complaint is one of three lawsuits stemming from the boy's death.
The first was filed in January by KeAir's mother and is against, among others, the district; Rizzo; Sails, and the Professional Educational Services Group (PESG), which provided Sails as a substitute teacher.
Another lawsuit was filed last month by Westfield Insurance seeking a judgment concerning the insurance coverage available under a commercial policy issued to PESG. That complaint states that PESG did not provide Sails to the district as a pool monitor, lifeguard or swim teacher and that its contract with the district provides that if the district "chooses to utilize a PESG employee in the capacity for which the individual is not approved by PESG, (School District) … automatically accepts liability for that individual."
According to the Zauner lawsuit, Rizzo was upset that Zauner gave police oral and written statements and that he told police that he warned Rizzo about Sails' incompetence as a pool monitor. Sails, of Detroit, was not a certified lifeguard, but allegedly represented he was to school officials.
The lawsuit also claims that after the boy's death the district secretly bought safety-related equipment for the pool. "Rizzo wanted to 'cover up' the equipment purchases and keep it a secret, including from the Eastpointe Police Department," according to the complaint.
It said Rizzo became more angry at Zauner for telling police about the purchases and on Feb. 14 "embarked on his campaign to retaliate against" Zauner, a teacher at the school since 1996 and the boys' varsity basketball coach since 1999.
According to the lawsuit, at various times over the next couple of months, Zauner was reprimanded, threatened with termination, placed on probation for the first time in his teaching and coaching career, and called a "(expletive) idiot" by Rizzo in front of a school security guard and students.
Zauner also alleges that he was told to meet May 7 with an attorney representing the district in the lawsuit filed by KeAir's mother.
"(T)he purpose of the meeting was to threaten, bully, harass and intimidate Plaintiff against cooperating any further with the Police investigation, or to take a position adverse to the Defendants in the Swift civil lawsuit," according to the lawsuit.
Zauner's complaint also alleges an assistant principal was issued a written reprimand for providing a summary to police pertaining to the incident.
Warnicke said Zauner continues to be shunned and treated as an outcast by his bosses and school administration, but plans to work in his positions until he retires.
"When parents send their children to school, they should be able to reasonably expect the school district will do everything within their power to protect the students, which absolutely did not happen in this very sad and tragic situation, as it was a time bomb waiting to go off," Warnicke said.