Lawsuit: Teen screamed ‘I can’t breathe’ during restraint

June 22, 2020 GMT

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. (AP) — A civil lawsuit filed Monday following the death of a 16-year-old in a Michigan youth facility says he screamed “I can’t breathe” as at least one staff member placed their weight on the Black teen’s chest for nearly 10 minutes.

The lawsuit filed in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court names Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo and Sequel Youth and Family Services as defendants.

Cornelius Fredericks died May 1 after going into cardiac arrest April 29. At the time, authorities said he was being restrained by staff after throwing a sandwich.

His death came nearly a month before George Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis with a white police officer’s knee pressing his neck to the ground.

Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying call for people protesting police violence against Black people and racial injustice during demonstrations across the U.S.

“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,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges negligence and says Lakeside staff improperly and wrongfully used restraints on Fredericks.

Authorities have not provided details of the race of the staff member or members involved.

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

Detroit attorney Jon Marko, who filed the civil rights lawsuit, said he has yet to view the video, but that he spoke with the mother of another child in the facility.

That child “claims to have heard Cornelius scream ‘I can’t breathe,’” Marko said, adding that a state Health and Human Services department report confirmed that account.

The lawsuit seeks damages allowed under the Michigan Wrongful Death Act. No financial amount was specified.

The Associated Press left a message Monday seeking comment from Lakeside Academy.

Sequel Youth and Family Services told The AP in an email that it cannot comment on pending legal matters, but that it has terminated all staff involved and removed the former executive director of Lakeside.

“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,” the company said. “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.”

The foster care system or parents placed youths in Lakeside Academy, a residential treatment facility about 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of Detroit, to receive behavioral health services after being abused or neglected.

Fredericks was a ward of the state, Marko told reporters Monday.

His aunt, Tenia Goshay, is named in the lawsuit as the representative of Fredericks’ estate. The teen’s mother is dead. His father and rest of the family were not in a position to care for him, Marko said.

Fredericks had been at Lakeside Academy about two years, Goshay told reporters.

“I want to know what happened to my nephew,” she said.

The state last week terminated its contracts with Lakeside for youth in Michigan’s foster care and juvenile justice systems and said all 125 youth at Lakeside were placed in other “settings based on their individual needs.”

The facility also had its license to operate suspended.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the department to cut ties with Sequel Youth and Family Services, which provided staffing to Lakeside Academy.

After Fredericks’ death, Lakeside Academy officials said what happened didn’t reflect the institution’s mission to “serve and care for our clients with excellence.”

But Michigan’s Health and Human Services department has conducted more than 30 investigations since 2016 on maintenance, staff qualifications, discipline, behavior management, resident restraint and staff sufficiency at Lakeside Academy, the lawsuit said.

Six months prior to Fredericks’ death there were six separate violations pertaining to improper use by staff of deescalation techniques, including improper restraints, according to the lawsuit, and at least eight employees had been fired since 2016 due to improper use of restraints, failure to use proper deescalation techniques or improperly supervising youth.

Michigan Health and Human Services officials have said an investigation of the for-profit academy found 10 licensing violations, including a failure to follow rules related to resident restraint and discipline.