State Documents Detail Death of Philadelphia Teen at School for Troubled Youth

WPVI-TV(PHILADELPHIA) — A 17-year-old boy who died earlier this month at a residential treatment facility in Philadelphia for troubled youth was heard yelling “I can’t breathe” as staff restrained him and one punched the teen’s rib cage before he stopped breathing, state violation reports allege.

Violation reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services led the state to order Wordsworth Academy to shutter its residential treatment program. The program, located in West Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood, served youths with emotional, behavioral or academic difficulties.

According to the violation reports, the incident began on Oct. 13 at 8:22 p.m. ET when multiple staff members entered the boy’s bedroom searching for an iPod that he allegedly stole from another child at the facility. After staff located the iPod and returned it to the owner, they heard the sound of breaking glass in the boy’s room. Staff members — identified in the reports as Staff Members A, B and C — returned to the room where they found the boy — identified as Child #1 — acting aggressively. While trying to restrain him, Staff Member B held the boy’s legs as Staff Member A began “throwing punches at the ribs of Child #1,” according to the reports. It goes on to say that during the restraint, the boy “began gasping for breath and then stopped moving.”

The reports said other children who were standing in the hallway during the incident heard the boy yelling, “I can take this, that’s the only thing you got, give me more, I eat those and I can take those.” The children then overheard the boy yell, “Get off me, I can’t breathe.”

The boy was pronounced dead in the bedroom at 9:51 p.m. ET, according to the reports.

The state violation reports said Staff Member B and Staff Member C did not participate in restraint training during the 2015-2016 training year, which is required by state law of anyone who “administers a restrictive procedure.”

In addition, state law requires that staff members who will have regular and significant direct contact with children must have at least 40 hours of training each year relating to the care and management of children, after their initial training. However, Staff Member B completed only 31 hours during the 2015-2016 training year and Staff Member C completed just 27 hours, the reports said.

The reports detail dozens of other violations of the state code regulating juvenile facilities. The violations discovered during several on-site inspections following the boy’s death include broken protective covers for heating and air conditioning units in 10 rooms, “stained, dirty and unsanitary” flooring in 12 rooms, non-operable lights in a fourth-floor hallway, heaters with “razor sharp edges” in two bedrooms, a bathroom with water leaks, exposed electrical wires in 12 rooms and holes in the walls, including a 3-foot hole in one bedroom, according to the reports.

The reports said a majority of the children’s rooms on the second, third and fourth floors were found “in advanced disrepair.”

In the Oct. 24 letter with the state’s order and the violation reports, Jacqueline Rowe, director of the state Bureau of Human Services Licensing, wrote that the decision to revoke Wordsworth Academy’s license to operate a child residential facility is based on the school’s “failure to comply with the department’s regulations and gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct in operating the facility.” Rowe also wrote that the existing conditions at the facility “constitute an immediate and serious danger to the health and safety of the residents.”

In a statement to ABC News on Thursday, Department of Human Services spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said: “During this transition, we will be on site every day to monitor the treatment of residents and the functioning and will be available for support until the 56 current residents are safely relocated.”

Wordsworth Academy said it is “saddened” by the boy’s death and “devastated” at the allegations. Apart from the residential treatment facility, the organization said all of its programs continue to operate.

“Due to the ongoing nature of this investigation, we are limited in our ability to comment on the various allegations raised,” Wordsworth Academy said in a statement issued Wednesday. “We are fully cooperating with all relevant agencies and authorities and are treating this matter with the seriousness and respect it deserves.”

A release issued by police of the incident offers an account of the incident that differs in some aspects from the Human Services reports. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, preliminary information revealed that staff members at Wordsworth Academy conducted a search of the boy’s room during an investigation. When they left, they heard banging in the boy’s room as he barricaded the door. The boy ignored several instructions to stop and when three staff members entered the room, they found him standing on the bed frame with the room “in complete disarray, with broken fixtures and furniture,” police said.

Staff members told the boy to calm down but he began yelling and “striking them.” The boy “lost consciousness” while they tried to “gain control” of him. The staff members attempted to revive the boy by performing CPR and called for a medic, police said.

Officers responded at approximately 9:01 p.m. to a radio call for a report of a “hospital case” at Wordsworth Academy. Upon their arrival, the officers found a 17-year-old boy in a room lying on the floor unresponsive. A medic who responded to the scene was unable to resuscitate him and he was declared dead, police said.

“The investigation is ongoing with the homicide unit. The decedent’s name is not releasable,” Philadelphia Police Department Public information Officer Christine O’Brien said in a statement to ABC News on Thursday.

Jeff Moran, director of communication for the Department of Public Health, told ABC News on Thursday that the Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet ruled on the cause of death and the case is still pending.

According to its website, Wordsworth Academy’s “mission” is to “provide education, behavioral health and child welfare services to children and youth who are experiencing emotional, behavioral and academic challenges so that they are empowered to reach their potential and lead productive, fulfilling lives.”

According to police, some children attend Wordsworth Academy due to court commitments, behavioral health treatment commitments, child welfare services or a requirement by the Department of Human Services.

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