Baltimore’s spending board voted Wednesday to approve a $345,000 settlement payment to the family of late high school football player Elijah Gorham, who died about a month after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a game last September.
In the settlement agreement with Gorham’s family, city schools vowed to hire athletic trainers at every high school that offers interscholastic athletics by the 2024-2025 school year, to collaborate with the city fire department to enhance emergency response times at school athletic events, and to expand emergency response training for coaches, volunteers and students.
“It makes me feel happy to know that the young men — going forward — that love the sport will be protected. To know that they’ll be safe,” said Gorham’s mother, Shantres Shaw.
Shaw said the majority of her proceeds from the settlement will go toward the foundation she’s establishing in her son’s honor, called the 7STRONG Foundation. The group hopes to purchase new equipment for youth football players, she said, and host a 7-on-7 flag football tournament focused on educating young student athletes about health and safety.
“Playing sports, to me, is very meaningful because it also keeps them encouraged and makes them joyful. And knowing that they have new equipment also keeps them safe, so they don’t have to worry about if it’s secure,” Shaw said.
In a statement, John MacLellan, the attorney representing Gorham’s father, wrote: “Mr. Gorham continues to cope with the death of his son. Elijah will be forever missed and loved.”
The city wanted to agree to a settlement “to avoid the expense, time, and uncertainties of protracted litigation,” according to a memo from City Solicitor Jim Shea. The settlement with the family does not constitute an admission of liability.
Under Maryland tort claims law, local governments generally can’t be held liable to any one person for more than $400,000 for injuries arising from a single incident, though government officials can negotiate higher payments.
In a statement, Baltimore City Public Schools spokesman André Riley wrote that the settlement agreement will “honor [Gorham’s] memory while building upon changes to safety training and procedures currently underway in the school district.”
“The tragic passing of Elijah Gorham in October 2021 is a loss still felt by his family, the Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School community, and Baltimore City Public Schools,” the statement read. “His irreplaceable spirit and character are cherished by his family and inspire all who knew him.”
During Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, himself a MERVO High School graduate, said the settlement “is a way to honor a young man’s legacy — a young man who was full of energy. A young man who was full of promise.”
He added that the city is “working with his family to implement the things that you’re hearing, changes that are already underway in Baltimore City Schools, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again to another student.”
Gorham was injured during a Sept. 18 game against Paul Laurence Dunbar High School at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
“During what appeared to be a routine and clean play in the endzone, Elijah and the defender from Dunbar both ran at full speed to catch a pass from the MERVO quarterback,” read Shea’s memo about the case. “Both athletes leapt for the football, and Elijah, unable to break his fall with his hands, was driven into the ground face-first by the momentum of the play, with the defender landing on top of him.”
Gorham didn’t get up immediately, but after “some time on the ground,” he rose and headed for the sideline, Shea wrote.
“Shortly thereafter, he collapsed and began seizing near the 10-yard line marker, until he became unconscious,” Shea wrote.
He was down along the sideline for a total of nearly 45 minutes after the injury, attended to by city schools personnel, before he was transported by ambulance to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center for brain surgery.
His parents have expressed concern about the length of time he was cared for on the field prior to his evacuation.
Douglas Phillips, the attorney representing Shaw, said those caring for Elijah on the sideline that warm September day initially might have misidentified his condition as heatstroke.
“In the heat of the moment, you could be really stressed out, and one person says: ‘I think it’s this. I think this is the problem. We need to cut his clothes off and put ice on him,’” Phillips said.
Through the settlement agreement, the family wants to ensure all coaches — not simply head coaches but also assistant and volunteer coaches — receive training for emergencies that goes beyond clicking through a webinar, Phillips said.
After Gorham’s passing, school system spokesman said that an on-site medic provided the initial response to the young man’s injury, while other staff members contacted first responders. The city contracts vendor CDK III Sports & First Aid to assign medics to athletic contests as needed, a city schools spokesman said.
City 911 records show that an ambulance arrived about eight minutes after a call came in from an off-duty EMT at the game. After 20 minutes on site, the ambulance left for the hospital, the records show.
That 20-minute time frame “was likely the time taken by EMTs to provide care and prepare the student for transport,” the city schools spokesman said at the time.
Phillips said the family took issue with the response time. In the settlement, school system promised to collaborate with the city fire department, contractual ambulance providers and area hospital systems “with the goal of providing adequate ambulance response times and reliability for emergencies” at sports events on city schools property.
“We want to make this about future situations,” Phillips said. “So a lot of these fields have more than one gate. They obviously all have two end zones. And so they need to know when they make that call ‘Hey, come to Cold Spring,’ or ‘Oh, you gotta go on Falls Road.’”
A bill — named for Elijah Gorham — passed during this year’s General Assembly session will require all middle and high schools in Maryland offering athletics to develop and rehearse venue-specific emergency plans at the beginning of the season for each sport. Gov. Larry Hogan is poised to sign the bill into law during a ceremony Thursday morning at the State House, said his spokesman Mike Ricci.
Per the settlement agreement with Gorham’s family, the city also will “create funded job positions and/or contractual arrangements for high school athletic trainers” beginning in the 2022 to 2023 school year and expanding to include all high school athletic programs by the 2024 to 2025 school year.
The athletic trainers will not replace the medics, Riley said, but add to the care provided by city schools staff for student athletes. The school system had been working on getting trainers prior to the settlement, including for the past several years, Riley added.
The school system also plans to hire someone for its Interscholastic Athletics Office who would oversee athletic health and safety initiatives across the district and support the school-based athletic trainers.
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The school system also pledged in the settlement that it is “enhancing its health and safety training, through a hybrid of in-person and on-line curriculum.”
“We already have extensive training, but we will do additional training as well,” said Josh Civin, chief legal officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, during Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting.
All head coaches, assistant coaches and volunteer coaches will be required to complete the training, which will include topics such as concussion protocols, heat stroke awareness and traumatic brain injury prevention, recognition and responses.
Per the agreement, the school system also will develop requirements for each high school athletic program to offer annual training sessions for students.
“The goal is to help students recognize potential issues ahead of time, play a part in avoiding them, and understand how to respond if they feel they have any type of injury,” the settlement agreement states.
The school system vowed to update Gorham’s parents on its progress every six months through the beginning of the 2025 to 2026 school year and allow them to participate in staff and student training sessions.
“I should note that these initiatives and these ideas benefited greatly from the parents’ input as part of the process,” Civin said.