NBC News investigates MI youth center
KALAMAZOO, Mich. - NBC News is investigating the death of a 16-year-old at a youth facility. It’s run by a company investigated before for past violations.
Video shows 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick having lunch at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo. The video doesn’t have audio, but Cornelius is seen throwing food.
Two staff members intervene, but when Cornelius throws another item, he’s pushed down. Six men pile on top of him.
After at least ten minutes of restraint, Cornelius is lifted up, and staff members stand around for another 12 minutes before a nurse calls 9-1-1.
“We have a student and he was in a restraint and now he’s unresponsive,” she says in the 9-1-1 call.
Two days later, Cornelius was dead.
“Throwing a sandwich... you don’t suffocate children for throwing a sandwich. That’s murder,” said attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
Fieger is representing Cornelius’s family who is suing the for-profit company that operated Lakeside called Sequel Youth and Family Services.
Born and raised in Michigan, Cornelius’s mom died when he was 12. His father was in prison and Cornelius became a ward of the state.
The police report shows Cornelius had been physically restrained at Lakeside 10 times before including once in January for 36 minutes.
NBC News found records showing since 2018, Michigan substantiated 56 violations at Lakeside including multiple instances of inappropriate physical restraints.
Three former employees have been charged with manslaughter and child abuse in Cornelius’s death. All are pleading not guilty.
“My client thinks what he did was absolutely proper,” said Donald Sappanos who is representing Zachary Solis.
Sappanos says his client was given just two hours of training on using restraints.
“There were several superior and rank employees standing around and nobody said anything to any employees that my client heard as far as move down, move up, get off his chest,” said Sappanos.
In a statement, Sequel says in part, “Cornelius’ death is heartbreaking... and the restraint used was in violation of our policies and training.” They add that they fired those involved quickly and are cooperating with law enforcement.
It’s not the first time NBC News has found evidence of improper restraints used at a Sequel facility. In two reports last year, former residents and staff described what happened at Clarinda Academy in Iowa.
“They just kept slamming my butt against the floor and my head was hitting the floor,” said Jesus Lopez who is a former resident of Clarinda Academy.
More than a year ago, Sequel announced a new restraint-free behavior management program, but it’s only been implemented at 10 of more than 40 facilities. At Lakeside, Sequel says employees completed the new training in March.
Michigan shut down Lakeside Academy, but Sequel continues to operate dozens of other facilities across the country.