When Michaela Johnson wanted to travel with her Rowlett High School ROTC group to Florida, her parents readily agreed to it.
Her mother, Kelly Webster, signed the permission form, never realizing it would have life-altering consequences for her 16-year-old daughter.
On that November trip, the high school sophomore broke her back, falling about 20-feet from a cargo net obstacle on an air force base. She was not wearing a harness. Doctors performed a spinal fusion, putting two metal rods in her back.
Her parents are thankful that she was not paralyzed or even killed. They are furious that ROTC instructors allowed their daughter to attempt to make such a dangerous climb.
“It's been very frustrating to us as parents,” said her father, Jeremy Johnson. “I sent my child on a field trip, and I'm expecting them to have to the best interest of my child, not only my child, but the 39 other children, on the field trip. Honestly, I feel that they failed us.”
In a statement, school district spokeswoman Mida Milligan said the “safety and security of our students is our top priority” and that their “hearts go out” when a student is injured. The statement said there are no plans to make changes on the release forms but said they are looking at “all of our processes for field trips.”
It indicated that participation in the obstacle course was voluntary.
Michaela joined the ROTC last year as a freshman. She was an active teenager who enjoyed riding horses. She had made other field trips with the ROTC. Her father had accompanied her on some of them.
So without thinking much of it, her mother said she signed the district's “approval and release form.” It notes that the “parents are responsible for the cost of medical treatment” unless “the injuries result from the negligent use of a motor vehicle owned by the district.”
She said a few days before the trip, they got a detailed itinerary of the trip. It mentioned that the students would be participating in an “obstacle course event” at the air force base. She signed a “waiver and hold harmless agreement” agreeing the military would not be held liable.
Her parents assumed the obstacle event would be geared for high school kids. They said they had no idea that the event would involve allowing teenagers to climb as much as 40 feet into the air on a cargo net obstacle.
The object of the obstacle was to climb to the top, climb over the log and then climb down – all without a harness.
Webster said had she known, it “would have been an absolute, immediate no. She could have ended up dead.”
The accident happened on the second day of the five-day field trip.
Michaela said she was about halfway up the cargo net obstacle.
“I was like about 20 feet up, and I said, 'I can't do it anymore,'” she said. “I was really tired.”
Still, she said instructors were encouraging her to keep climbing. She said she took a step to come back down, lost her footing and fell to the ground. She does not remember falling.
“I had my eyes closed, I guess,” she said.
She recalls being in excruciating pain and being taken to the hospital.
After the incident, Webster said she received a call from one of the instructors telling her that Michaela had been hurt and had been taken to the emergency room. In the next phone call, they told her she had been taken to a trauma center.
Her father drove throughout the night to reach his daughter in Florida. When the Dallas firefighter got there, he learned his daughter's back had been broken. She was flown on a medical flight back to Dallas, where she underwent surgery.
“It just takes your breath away knowing that your baby girl has been injured and there's nothing you can do,” he said. “You feel helpless.”
Webster said the principal called her the night of the accident to say he was sorry. But they said weeks went by without them hearing anything from the school district other than the ROTC instructors. They said emails went unanswered.
Finally, they called and were able to get a meeting to set up homebound services for Michaela. After several meetings with school administrators and teachers, they said they were able to get her tutors twice a week.
As weeks rolled by, the medical bills began piling up to the tune of about $25,000. He expects the tab to grow.
Michaela's parents asked the district to pay for the medical bills that were not covered by his insurance.
The school district's insurance carrier through the Texas Association of School Boards sent them a letter saying that “the district would not owe for this type of claim since our coverage agreement only allows payments for incidents in which the district has a legal obligation to pay.”
“Due to the type of claim involved, the district has no legal obligation to pay for any injuries or damage arising from this matter,” the letter continues. It said the district has sovereign immunity from liability in the case. The only exception, the letter said, was if it involved an employee negligently operating a motor vehicle.
The parents said they met with the district's risk manager a couple of weeks ago. They say he told them that their daughter chose to do the obstacle and was therefore liable for what happened.
“I'm not expecting my teenager to make an adult decision when two adult instructors are there,” said her father, Jeremy Johnson. “They should have known not to let these kids do this with no safety precautions.”
The district's statement said Texas school districts are immune from these types of “tort claims” unless it involves a motor vehicle.
Because “the District is immune, payment of medical bills would be in violation of the prohibition on gifts of public funds in Texas Constitution,” the statement said.
Doctors cleared Michaela to return to school Monday after missing six weeks. Her activity is restricted and she can't lift more than 20 pounds. Her parents worry about the life-long consequences of such a severe injury.
They say they are left wondering why the school employees trusted their daughter to make a choice that could have killed her.
“I feel that that they need to have policies in place to prevent his from happening to any other child,” Johnson said.