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Estate of 16-year-old sues over death after restraint by Kalamazoo school staff

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

The family of a 16-year-old who died after being restrained by staff at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo is suing the school and the company that owns it for $100 million, alleging negligence.

Cornelius Frederick died May 1 after suffering a heart attack on April 29. At the time, authorities said he was being restrained by staff after throwing a sandwich.

“We loved him very, very much,” said Frederick’s aunt, Tenia Goshay, who is representing the estate.

Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“We just don’t know what happened. We don’t know why.”

The state on Thursday terminated its contracts with Lakeside Academy for youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system. All 125 youth at Lakeside were placed elsewhere, the state said.

The Kalamazoo County prosecutor said he is reviewing investigations of the case by the state and law enforcement.

According to a complaint and request for trial filed Monday in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court, Frederick died after he was restrained, during which staff allegedly sat on his chest.

“In fact, video from Lakeside Academy even shows a staff member placing his/her weight directly on Cornelius’s chest for nearly ten minutes as Cornelius lost consciousness,” according to the complaint and one of the lawyers for the estate, Jon Marko of Detroit.

“Cornelius’s scream of ‘I can’t breathe’ was not enough to get the staff members to stop the excessive restraint.”

The situation is “eerily similar,” the complaint and Marko asserted, to the death of George Floyd while retrained by Minneapolis police earlier this year.

Floyd’s death is the focus of international demonstrations against police brutality and racial intolerance.

The suit names Lakeside Academy and Sequel Youth Services of Michigan, which has a management agreement with the company Lakeside for Children to operate the facility.

The school could not be reached for comment. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Saturday that Sequel Youth and Family Services cannot provide services for facilities licensed by the state agency.

Sequel said it could not comment on pending legal matters, but in a statement said it was saddened by Frederick's death.

"We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Cornelius and acted quickly to terminate all staff involved," Sequel said Monday. "Additionally, we have removed the former executive director of Lakeside from the organization. We have been in regular contact with law enforcement and state officials to help ensure justice is served and have accelerated the work that was already underway across our organization to move to a restraint-free model of care.

"We take our obligation to meet the significant behavioral health needs of all our students incredibly seriously and remain focused on our mission of providing the absolute best care and treatment possible for our clients."

Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger said the state "has pulled the facility license."

"Gov. Whitmer has recognized that Cornelius' death was 'senseless, intolerable and heartbreaking,'" he said.

The staff at Lakeside Academy had previously used “wrongful and improper restraints,” according to the complaint and Marko.

“The Department of Health and Human Services has a laundry list of complaints that it has investigated and addressed regarding employees of the defendants improperly managing situations with residents at Lakeside Academy,” the lawsuit asserts.

“Since 2016, defendants had at least thirty violations investigated through the (DHHS) regarding facility and premises maintenance, staff qualifications, discipline, behavior management, resident restraint, and sufficiency of staff.”

In 2016, Frederick’s estate claims, the companies fired eight employees due to improper use of restraints or “failure to use proper de-escalation techniques, and/or improper supervision of residents.”

Since then, the companies have suspended or placed on leave at least seven more employees, according to the lawsuit.

“Within the six months prior to the death of Cornelius Frederick, defendants had six separate incidents of violations pertaining to employees’ improper use of de-escalation techniques,” the suit asserts.

Marko said Frederick was a ward of the state.

“Cornelius’ mother passed away,” he said. “She died in her sleep when she was only 32 years old. And Cornelius’ father wasn’t in a place where he was able to take care of Cornelius and the family wasn’t able to take care of him.”

Marko said he will consider whether to name the state as a defendant, based on continuing to gather information about the case.

“Cornelius was placed in Lakeside Academy and he apparently threw a sandwich on the floor, some minor, trivial event, something like that. And as a result, he was put into a restraint," he said.

Marko said that the state has documented officials at the school waited for 12 minutes before summoning help for Frederick.

It was later determined Frederick had COVID-19.

“One thing is for sure, what happened to Cornelius never should have happened,” Marko said. “It was preventable. This facility had been told. It had a prior history of problems, of violations of abusive restraints. And, the staff was not qualified."

Marko alleged that in the days after the incident, other students became increasingly undisciplined, to the point that their unruliness eventually involved the use of tear gas, in response.

He said he did not know who had used tear gas.

Kalamazoo police declined to comment.

The lawsuit alleges multiple two counts of negligence in varying degrees and seeks damages for wrongful death.

"The protection of our most vulnerable must be a top priority," Fieger said. "Black lives matter. Black children matter."

Kalamazoo County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Getting said Thursday that his office is reviewing completed investigations to determine whether criminal charges are authorized in Frederick’s death, according to the Associated Press.

Getting could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis called last week for Hennepin County, Minnesota, to stop placing children in Lakeside Academy for juvenile delinquency matters, according to the AP.

The county removed all Minnesota children from the facility after Frederick’s death.