East Detroit substitute teacher arraigned for drowning death
By Kevin Bunch
Posted February 14, 2014
EASTPOINTE — A long-term substitute teacher at East Detroit High School was arraigned at the 38th District Court on a charge of involuntary manslaughter Feb. 12 for the pool-related death of 14-year-old freshman KeAir Swift last November.
Johnathon Lamonte Sails, 24, of Detroit, pleaded not guilty to the charge, a felony that carries a possible 15-year sentence. According to Detective Matt Merlo, Sails had been contracted as a long-term substitute teacher for the physical education classes and allegedly was teaching a remedial swim class when Swift drowned.
“During the end of the swim class, a student drowned at the bottom of the pool,” Merlo said. “At the time, (Sails) was on the upper balcony of the pool area and not attending to students.”
Merlo said that several students had noticed Swift struggling, but Sails allegedly brushed off their concerns and said Swift was just fooling around in the pool. When Sails did move to assist, Merlo said Sails allegedly went to the locker room first to change into swimming attire and then was unable to rescue Swift from the pool.
Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith said Swift later was rescued by an assistant principal, who jumped into the water in a business suit and pulled Swift out, but by that point, he did not have a pulse.
Smith alleged that Sails also was unqualified to teach the swim class.
“To be an instructor in a swim class, you need to be certified by the Red Cross, and he misrepresented his certification to the school,” Smith said. “You also need to be dressed in appropriate attire and be in the immediate vicinity of the pool, and he was up in the bleachers above the pool.”
Smith said the investigation took as long as it did because investigators wanted to determine whether or not the school had been grossly negligent, as well. While he felt there was negligence on the part of East Detroit High School, he said, the prosecution would be unable to prove that it reached the criminal standard to go to court.
“There’s so many different ways this could have been avoided and KeAir could have been alive right now,” Smith said. “And unfortunately, none of that happened and we find ourselves where we are.”
East Detroit Superintendent Joanne Lelekatch issued a statement indicating that the district would continue to cooperate with authorities during the prosecution, and noting it has been cooperative.
“It would be inappropriate for us to speculate about the charges, and we trust that the justice system will appropriately address the matter,” she said in the statement.
The statement said Sails is the employee of an outside contractor the school has used for substitute teachers for years, as have several other local school districts.
The contractor is Professional Education Services Group, and Lelekatch said this incident has not affected the district’s relationship with the contractor at this time, and that the district is not planning to cease work with the company.
“That has not come up in the conversation,” she said.
A PESG representative able to speak about the incident was not available Feb. 14 before press time.
Swift's family has filed a civil suit against Sails, as well as East Detroit High School, the East Detroit School District, the principal and the assistant principals at the high school, said attorney James Craig, of the Fieger Law firm. They are seeking $25,000 in damages.
Craig said the firm is hoping to have the police report within a few days, adding that it would take longer than usual due to the volume of the report. The firm is still investigating Sails' employment situation before determining whether or not to name PESG in the suit, he said.
Lelekatch said Feb. 14 that she and the district had not officially received the civil suit filing, so she couldn’t comment on it.
Sails’ attorney, Robert Leonetti, had no comment after the arraignment.
Sails’ preliminary exam has been scheduled for March 19, and his personal bond was set for $25,000 with Judge Carl Gerds stipulating that Sails cannot teach any classes he is not certified for during that time.
Merlo confirmed that Sails has no criminal record or outstanding warrants, and that he has been cooperative during the investigation.
Swift had been a new student in the East Detroit school district, but Assistant Principal Nicole Kirby told C & G in November that he had been well-liked among the school’s staff and his peers.
The Macomb Intermediate School District and the East Detroit district brought in grief counselors for students and teachers, as well as additional support, to help those who knew Swift cope with his death.
About the author
Staff Writer Kevin Bunch covered the communities of Eastpointe and Roseville, as well as Roseville Community Schools and East Detroit Public Schools. He worked at C&G Newspapers beginning in 2013, and is a graduate of Wayne State University and Henry Ford Community College. Kevin is also a 2015 Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting alumni. In 2016, Kevin began working for the International Joint Commission.
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