Parents of Danville Drowning Victim Speak Out Years After School Tragedy

In the days and weeks following Benjamin Curry’s death, the tight-knit Danville school community was scrambling for answers. According to his parents, it was Curry’s depression that sparked a false narrative that Ben died by suicide.

NBC Universal, Inc.

More than four years after their son Benjamin drowned in a crowded pool during a physical education class at a Danville high school, Karen and Tom Curry feel the need to set the record straight about his death.

They still hear the same rumors today that began swirling after Benjamin’s death: That their son, who suffered from depression, took his own life at the San Ramon Valley High School swimming pool.

Now, years after the drowning, and a lawsuit against the school district in the rearview mirror, Karen and Tom Curry said they have the most complete picture of what went wrong that day, and they want the public to know. It's not just about those rumors, they said, but about accountability and the safety of other students.

“We want the truth to come out,” Karen Curry said. “This is what really happened to the boy that drowned in the high school swimming pool on May 8, 2018.”

The true story, they said, is one of mistakes, missed warning signs, and rumors.

“[The lawsuit] wasn’t the pursuit of the money,” Tom Curry said. “It was that we wanted to know how our son died and how a school could do that or be responsible for that.”

In the days and weeks following Benjamin's death, the tight-knit school community was scrambling for answers. According to his parents, it was Benjamin's depression that sparked a false narrative that he died by suicide.

“That was the rumor that took off,” Karen Curry said. “And I think it was perpetuated by the school and school staff talking about it among each other.

In a deposition for the Curry lawsuit, which was settled in 2020 for $8 million and no admission of fault by the district, former superintendent Rick Schmitt said those same rumors reached him.

“I think staff had mentioned it to me pretty early on,” he said.

Although a Contra Costa County Coroner’s Office investigation quickly ruled the death an accidental drowning, Benjamin's parents said the rumor of his suicide persists to this day.

The coroner’s report is based in part on surveillance video that, according to investigators, shows Benjamin slipping under water in an Olympic size swimming pool filled with other students.

Aaron Becker, the school’s varsity football coach, was also the teacher and only adult supervisor for the 57-student PE class that had Benjamin in it.

According to Becker’s deposition for the lawsuit, the teacher said he originally instructed the students to tread water for three minutes but added 30 extra seconds because some kids were horsing around or hanging on the pool's lane lines.

Karen and Tom Curry, who have also viewed the surveillance video, said it’s during this extra time when Ben sank to the bottom of the pool, and nobody seemed to notice. They also said Becker appeared distracted, looking at his phone.

In his deposition, Becker, who is still employed by the district, said he was looking at the stopwatch app so he could keep track of time.

NBC Bay Area has not viewed the surveillance video because it was sealed by a judge after a request from the district.

But the Curry family did share other videos turned over to them during the lawsuit.

Body camera footage from Becker’s police interviews shows the teacher telling law enforcement officers, “As I walked by the pool [after class] I didn’t notice anyone was in the water and no students said they saw anyone in the water.”

But Karen and Tom Curry said the surveillance video shows Becker failed to walk around the entire pool while checking for any remaining students after class. Making matters worse, they say, is the fact that Becker's lifeguard certification had expired months before the drowning, according to the sheriff's report.

Law enforcement reports from the incident state it wasn’t until 10 minutes into the following PE class period when other students swimming in the pool noticed Benjamin at the bottom. A different PE teacher supervising that class jumped in, pulled Benjamin from the pool, and started CPR. First responders soon arrived, but it was too late.

“How do you show up with 57 [kids] and walk out with 56 and go on with your day?” Tom Curry said.

Both parents said Becker, who did not respond to an email request for comment from NBC Bay Area, should have faced discipline after Ben's drowning.

Former Superintendent Rick Schmitt issued a written apology on behalf of the district in 2018, and again in 2020 as part of the settlement agreement reached with the Curry family in their lawsuit.

“By all accounts, [Ben] was a popular and well-liked student at San Ramon Valley High School,” Schmitt wrote in the 2020 letter. “I also wish to express our regret and sincere apologies for the District’s role in causing this tragic accident. The accident occurred while Benjamin was under our supervision and the District accepts full responsibility for what happened.”

The letter goes on to say that “In reviewing this matter, it appeared that our policies and procedures regarding our physical education swim classes were either insufficient or were not sufficiently followed in a manner that would ensure student safety.”

But Karen and Tom Curry said they’ve yet to receive an in-person apology from either Schmitt or Becker.

“We’re not hateful people,” Karen Curry said. “We don’t want them to suffer. But we would like an apology.”

Perhaps more maddening for the Curry family, is that another student at a nearby district school nearly drowned earlier that same school year, about seven months before Benjamin died. California High School PE teacher Lenard Matthews, credited for helping save the student’s life, warned the school board after the near-drowning about PE classes with too many students and not enough teachers.

“What I would really love to know from [the board], is what are you going to tell that parent that comes up to you and says, ‘Well, what happened to my kid?’” Matthews said at a school board meeting. “I’m going to tell the truth. I’m a Christian man. I’m going to say we had too many kids in that class. What are you going to say?”

The Currys said the incident was a red flag the district should have acted on.

“It was devastating to realize after Ben died that they had this event at Cal High in the same school district, in the same school year, and they didn’t do anything about it,” Karen Curry said. “So, fortunately, [Matthews] was paying attention. There were 47 students, a teacher and a lifeguard, as opposed to Ben’s class that had 57 students, a teacher, and no lifeguard, and a teacher that allowed himself to be distracted.”

In a written statement, new district superintendent John Malloy said:

I understand that the tragic loss of Benjamin Curry leaves his family with an unthinkable sadness. Last year I met personally with the parents and have shared my sincere compassion regarding their tragic loss. I will refrain from discussing any other details other than to say that our hearts continue to be with the family.”

The district also said it’s put new safety measures in place at school pools since Benjamin's death, such as ending PE swim classes, and hiring a district aquatics coordinator who organized and administers an aquatics safety program.

There is now a plaque at Sycamore Valley Park in Danville, where Benjamin used to spend hours on the court practicing his jump shot. Despite their pain, Karen and Tom Curry say they have no plans to leave Danville behind. After all, it’s Ben’s hometown.

They’re now pushing for better safety measures at school swimming pools, including:

  • Having at least one teacher and one lifeguard supervising no more than 40 students or swimmers.
  • Taking roll before and after all swimming activities.
  • Walking the perimeter of the pool to ensure everyone is out of the water before leaving.
  • Required lifeguard, CPR and first aid certification for all teachers and lifeguards.
  • No Cell phones or other distractions while supervising students in the pool.
  • Keeping all pool gates locked when a teacher and lifeguard are not present.

Karen and Tom Curry attended the high school graduation of Ben's classmates and they still keep in touch with many of his friends, which they say brings them joy.

“I waited 42 years to have this child and I’m so grateful that I got to have him for 15 years and that I can say Benjamin Curry was my boy," Karen Curry said.

Contact Us