A Black Teen Died After Screaming ‘I Can't Breathe’ as Youth Home Employees Put Their Weight on Him

“The excessive use of restraints and the lack of concern for Cornelius’ life draw an eerily similar comparison to that of George Floyd’s death.”
June 23, 2020, 5:35pm
A student waits to read her poem at Lakeside Academy, in Kalamazoo, Mich. Speak It Forward is an ongoing program at Lakeside that allows students to express their experiences and life-stories in an extemporaneous style. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Mark Bugnask
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UPDATE 6/25 9:45 a.m.: Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting announced Wednesday that three staff members of Lakeside Academy — Michael Mosley, Zachary Solis, and Heather McLogan — will be charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse.

Mosley and Solis are accused of laying across Fredericks' chest and causing his death and they each face two counts of child abuse. McLogan is accused of failing to follow through with medical care that could've helped Fredericks, and she faces one count of second-degree child abuse.

Original story follows:

A Black Michigan teen in the care of a privately-run facility for troubled youth died two days after an employee put their full weight on his chest for nearly 10 minutes, according to attorneys for his family. During the incident, 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks said he couldn’t breathe.

Fredericks’ estate sued the Kalamazoo-based facility, Lakeside Academy, and its related companies for $100 million in damages on Monday. Fredericks was there as a ward of the state, according to MLive.com. His mother died when he was 10 and his step-father was incarcerated a year later.

The incident allegedly started when Fredericks threw a sandwich on April 29. A video obtained by attorneys representing Fredericks’ estate shows one unidentified staff member at the facility putting their full weight on Fredericks’ chest as he screamed. The lawsuit suggests other staff were involved, and an investigation from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services found that several staff members put their weight on his chest, abdomen, and legs, too.

When Fredericks grew unresponsive, staff did not call 911 for 12 minutes, according to the state’s report. He had gone into cardiac arrest.

“Cornelius’s scream of ‘I can’t breathe’ was not enough to get the staff members to stop the excessive restraint,” Jonathan Marko, one of the attorneys representing Fredericks’ estate. wrote in a complaint filed in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court. “The excessive use of restraints and the lack of concern for Cornelius’s life draw an eerily similar comparison to that of George Floyd’s death.”

Fredericks was placed on life support at a nearby hospital and died on May 1, according to the lawsuit. Before his death, hospital staff also diagnosed him with coronavirus. Nearly 40 other residents and several staff later tested positive too, and Fredericks’ family accuses the facility of being negligent.

Fredericks’ treatment plan for anger management and coping skills at the facility noted he was “triggered when antagonized” or when people touched him, according to the state’s investigation. Staff were instructed to guide him toward “positive self-talk” and encourage his “appropriate interactions.”

Staff are also trained to use restraint only in emergencies, like when they see a person attempting to harm themselves or others, according to a representative from Sequel Youth and Family Services, which manages Lakeside Academy and was also named in the lawsuit.

A resident at the facility, described only as “Resident E,” later told state investigators that, in the moments leading up to his fatal encounter with staff, Fredericks was throwing food. Staff told him to stop, and Fredericks fell to the ground when they tried to restrain him but didn’t fight back, according to the resident. (Another resident said that Fredericks told staff “you guys are fucked.”) Several residents at the facility also reported either being restrained in the past or regularly seeing their peers restrained.

Sequel Youth and Family Services runs a litany of schools similar to Lakeside Academy nationwide. The locations often serve and treat at-risk kids in the juvenile justice system, foster system, and more.

Under Sequel’s management, however, Lakeside Academy has been party to more than 30 state investigations over maintenance, staff qualifications, staff sufficiency, discipline, behavior management, and restraint since 2016, according to Monday’s lawsuit. The company also terminated or suspended several employees for improper restraints on kids in the facility’s care, according to Fredericks family’s complaint.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Cornelius and acted quickly to terminate all staff involved,” a representative for Sequel Youth and Family Services said in a statement. “Additionally, we have removed the former executive director of Lakeside from the organization.”

The company also is working with law enforcement and state officials and said it takes its “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.”

The state is now in the process of terminating the license of Lakeside Academy, and officials said in a press release Monday that they’d also cut ties with Sequel Youth and Family Services. The state also said it’d no longer allow physical restraints from the companies it contracts; Sequel said in a statement to VICE News that it, too, is working toward a “restraint-free model.”

The Sequel facilities had run into controversy before Fredericks’ death, though. An Oregon legislator visited one Illinois facility unannounced last year — kids from her state were being sent to that Sequel location and others — and witnessed an inappropriate restraint, and discovered a 10-year-old there had been punched in the face by a staff member, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Hennepin County, Minnesota officials removed all kids placed in out-of-state Sequel Youth facilities in the wake of Fredericks’ death.

“On May 1, a young man died because of restraints wrongly applied at a facility licensed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). It was a tragedy and an outrage,” the department’s director, Robert Gordon, said in a statement. “We cannot bring this young man back to life, but we will not rest until we have changed the system that allowed his death.”

Cover: A student waits to read her poem at Lakeside Academy, in Kalamazoo, Mich. Speak It Forward is an ongoing program at Lakeside that allows students to express their experiences and life-stories in an extemporaneous style. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Mark Bugnaski)