By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
We usually talk about music in this space.
Well, as I understand it, James Dante Kings was a talented percussionist.
I can't say that I know this for certain; I've never heard Kings play. But I do know that the 17-year-old high school senior was supposed to start studying at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City next fall. And I know he had been offered a scholarship to attend that school. So, certainly, that's a vote in favor of his talent.
But Kings was no hotshot rock star. A month ago, few besides Kings' friends, classmates and family had ever heard his name. At that time, he was just another promising music student set to come out from under Booker T. Washington High School's arts magnet umbrella.
Odd how things change so quickly.
Three weeks ago, Kings was in Austin on a field trip with the two dozen other members of Booker T. Washington's Latin jazz ensemble. They were traveling as part of a three-day performance tour that had, just one day earlier, taken them to Houston. On the morning of March 28, they were slated to perform at the State Capitol building.
But in the very early hours of March 28, Kings was found dead on Interstate 35, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run accident. His body was found not too far from the hotel in which his group was staying.
Word spread quickly. By Friday afternoon, Austin CBS affiliate KEYE-Channel 42 and Dallas FOX affiliate KDFW-Channel 4 had both reported Kings' death. We at the Dallas Observer picked up the story on our music blog that evening, and by Saturday, both the Austin American-Statesman and The Dallas Morning News had run lengthy articles about the incident in their morning editions.
Suddenly, a whole bunch of people knew Kings' name.
But even now, three weeks later, even with all those eyes watching the story, all anyone really knows about Kings' death is, well, that he died. And, if you want to editorialize it, that he died too young.
There are some obvious roadblocks to finding out the details: Kings' classmates aren't talking, at least not publicly. Neither are his teachers or chaperones. Meanwhile, Dallas and Austin police are still trying to piece together what they have learned, so they're not acting like Chatty Cathy dolls either.
All we have now is a cloud of lingering unknowns, waiting to be answered. And it doesn't look like that cloud will go away anytime soon.
Kings' parents acknowledged as much at a news conference held last Thursday—just one day after a press release announced that the Kings family had retained the services of a lawyer to help them, too, investigate their son's death.
They explained that they only seem to know the facts that everyone else does: that, at around 2:15 a.m. on March 28, Kings was found dead on I-35; and that, on March 27, after the 11 p.m. curfew his field trip itinerary had indicated as "lights out" time, Kings was awake and socializing in one of his classmates' hotel rooms.
And, yes, they've heard the rumors too: On April 1, the Morning News reported that Kings' father believed that his son "may have unknowingly been slipped a drug" while socializing with his classmates on the night of March 27. (That belief remains unsubstantiated; the results of the Austin Police Department's toxicology report on the matter have yet to be released.)
So, James and Leslie Kings seem to have changed gears in their search for answers. At their news conference, they openly criticized what they say are lax rules for Booker T. Washington's field trips. And instead of the how, they've chosen to focus on the why.
"We had trusted the chaperones and the teachers who were on this trip with our son to look after his safety and to make sure his conduct was in line with what they would require him to do," Kings' father said. Specifically, Kings' parents said, they hope to learn why the field trip didn't strictly follow the itinerary they had received from the school.
"Apparently there was a lax position regarding curfews," Kings said, "and I feel like if the curfews were going to be relaxed, this is something the parents should be made aware of."
While their lawyer has filed a petition to help the family better investigate the circumstances surrounding James' death, no lawsuit has been filed. And, though it's tough to imagine that there won't be a civil lawsuit at some point down the line, the Kingses aren't currently planning one. Instead, they are staying focused on making sure there are formal changes made to the Dallas Independent School District's field trip policies.
"We want to be constructive in the fight we're in," Kings said. "Even though [these students] might be highly intelligent and highly creative, they're still kids. They're still minors. They still need supervision."
Sure. But can rules and regulations truly prevent something like what happened to James Dante Kings from happening again? I don't really know.
All I know is that James Dante Kings died on March 28. And while, as I understand it, he was a talented percussionist, that doesn't make his death any more or less of a shame.