Southlake family fights to change TX law, honor drowned student-athlete with diploma

After Elise Cerami drowned during swim practice on June 20, 2016, at the Carroll Aquatics Center in Southlake, Carroll school district officials were asked to help keep her memory alive.

A friend of the Cerami family wanted school officials to issue a posthumous diploma in honor of Elise.

But school district personnel pointed to the current state law and said “no,” according to Elise’s parents. The law was written with language that said only seniors who were “academically on track at the time of death to receive a diploma,” were eligible for that particular award.

Elise was only 13 when she died. She was an expert swimmer and was accepted on the Carroll varsity swim team before she was to begin her freshman year in high school, said her mother, Lori Cerami.

When Carroll officials sought guidance from the Texas Association of School Boards, the district was advised to continue its current practice of providing an empty chair at graduation, the Cerami family said.

The TASB was concerned that offering a posthumous diploma, ”may set a precedent that would be hard to limit,” according to the family.

“The idea of an empty chair left us feeling empty,” Lori Cerami said.

That was when Elise’s parents started working to change the law.

elise cerami 2
Elise Cerami, 13, in a school photo. Family photo.

A bill the family endorsed, HB 638, which was passed by the state House in March, was approved by the Texas Senate on Monday. It will become law if signed by the governor.

‘She would have graduated with honors’

Had she lived and remained whole, Elise most certainly would have graduated, according to the Ceramis. Elise took the Scholastic Aptitude Test early.

“She took the full-blown SAT in her eighth-grade year and she wanted to make a perfect score,” Lori Cerami said. “She said she was the youngest person in the room when she took it. She scored in the 91st percentile of graduating seniors.”

“Lofty goals,” her father, David Cerami, said.

“She had already decided she wanted to go to (Texas) A&M, she wanted to get an engineering degree and she wanted to swim,” Lori Cerami continued.

Then Elise wanted get a law degree from Southern Methodist University and be a patent attorney, thinking it would be a good way to get a look at the inventions of others, her mother said.

“Elise was a near straight-A student,” Lori Cerami said. “There’s no reason that she would not graduated with honors.”

‘There’s comfort in hearing your child’s name’

After meeting the Ceramis at an annual event started three years ago in honor of their daughter, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said he decided to take up their cause with the idea that others might also be helped by an amended law.

“He came to our house and asked us what we wanted to change,” Lori Cerami said. “We struck a few line items out of it and he presented it.”

On May 7, Lori Cerami made a presentation before the Senate Education Committee regarding House Bill 638, which would expand the law on posthumous diplomas.

“Some might think a parent may not want to be reminded of their child’s absence,” Lori Cerami told the Senate committee. ”Yet hearing Elise’s name reminds us that she lived. Like other parents whose child is present, there’s comfort in hearing your child’s name. Another parent related to this well when he said, ‘Our child dies a second time when no one speaks their name.’”

Elise Cerami would have been in the class of 2020. The goal is for her family to be present for the May 29, 2020, graduation and have Elise’s name announced in time for Lori’s birthday, which is also on May 29.

The Carroll school district will follow already established policy and the current law regarding the issuance of posthumous diplomas until the law changes, according to a statement from Julie Thannum, school district spokeswoman.

Should the new bill be signed into law, the district will wait to receive the updated legal policy from the state, and work with campus administrators to determine how district officials will handle the awarding of posthumous diplomas going forward, Thannum said.

Coach convicted of negligence

Tracey Anne Boyd, the 51-year-old assistant swim coach who was supervising the practice when Elise Cerami drowned, was found guilty of abandonment and endangering a child by criminal negligence in December. Boyd was sentenced to three years’ probation and is prohibited from obtaining swim coach certification.

Swimmer Dies Coach Charged
Coach Tracey Boyd was charged in the death of Elise Cerami. AP

Boyd was an assistant coach with the North Texas Nadadores, a club team that is owned by the Carroll school district and practices at the district’s Aquatics Center. Boyd left her job in February 2017.

David Alex, the Tarrant County prosecutor who presented the state’s case, said the outcome was in accordance with the Cerami family’s wishes.

“The family never wanted any jail time for the defendant,” he said.

Boyd’s indictment acknowledged that she was present at the pool when Elise drowned, but not watching the swimmers, nor did she ensure that the swimmers were being watched by a responsible party.

Boyd’s defense attorney,Sherry Armstrong, said swim coaches are human and need to answer phone calls, speak to other coaches and leave the pool area at times. Prosecutors presented evidence during the trial that Boyd left the pool area for perhaps as long as nine minutes while Elise was underwater.

Evidence was presented at trial that Elise drowned while surrounded by more than 20 other swimmers and two coaches. The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office ruled that her death was an accidental drowning.

“You left Elise underwater for six minutes until two girls pulled her to safety,” Lori Cerami said at the time. “We watched in horror as members of the medical community worked on her for hours. We lost our past, we lost our present and we cannot recognize our future. I lost my mini-me and my amazing daughter who made me a better mother. Your negligence took every memory that we might have cherished.”

After Elise died, Carroll ISD changed policy to increase lifeguard coverage while pools were in use.

“To a certain extent I know they were concerned about litigation, so from a business perspective and doing their jobs, I get it,” David Cerami said. “But this is significant. So a parent comes to you and says my child died in your pool, can you say her name during graduation? To say no and cite some law: It dumbfounded us.”

SWIM 4 Elise

After their daughter died, the parents established a foundation in her name devoted to water safety. The foundation is called SWIM 4 Elise.

The foundation provides college scholarships, water safety courses, lifeguard training and swim camp scholarships and is funded in part through an event called RUN 4 Elise that marked its third year on May 4 and had more than 600 participants, according to the charity’s website.

“There is still such a need. Even after all the drownings that continue to take place worldwide, people still don’t respect the water,” Lori Cerami said.

“There’s this belief that once we teach our kids to swim our job is done,” she said. “That could not be farther from the truth.”

The year that Elise Cerami downed, another group promoting water safety in Texas called Help for Parents, Hope for Kids, recorded 107 child drowning deaths in Texas, and so far this year, 17 children have drowned in the state.

In 2015, an estimated 360,000 people died from drowning, according to the World Health Organization.

Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death, accounting for 7 percent of all injury-related deaths, the WHO website reported.

In the United States, 45 percent of drowning deaths are among the most economically active segment of the population.

Coastal drowning in the United States alone accounts for $273 million each year in direct and indirect costs, the WHO website showed. In Australia and Canada, the total annual cost of drowning injury is $85.5 million and $173 million respectively.

Seeking a change in the law about posthumous diplomas, like championing water safety, has taken on more significance during the struggle, according to Elise Cerami’s parents.

“We have been asked if we were upset when the school district said no to the posthumous diploma request,” Lori Cerami said. “Very few things are worse than grieving the loss of your child, and we live that journey every day. The no we received from our school district made us seek out a far bigger yes. A yes that could impact the journey of other grieving families across Texas.”

The governor could sign the changes into law over the summer, and the new law would take effect Sept. 1, Lori Cerami said.

“It would provide our family with a significant piece of Elise’s journey and it could set a precedent for other grieving families,” she said. “Elise valued her life and she valued the lives of those around her. It would be a pretty amazing legacy for Elise to leave behind.”

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.