At least four youths at a private residential program for juvenile offenders have independently told their lawyers that they witnessed staff members sit on a struggling Isaiah Simmons for three hours Tuesday until he passed out and died, Maryland's chief public defender said last night.
The statement by Nancy Forster came after a Baltimore judge ordered three city youths removed from the Bowling Brook Preparatory School in response to an emergency request by public defenders. The emergency hearings will continue next week across the state, Forster said, until all of her office's clients at the school have had their cases reviewed by a juvenile court.
"We want our children out of there," she said.
In three hearings that lasted until 7:30 p.m. yesterday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon released one youth, remanded one to house arrest and sent the third for a brief stay at the Maryland Youth Residence Center, a juvenile shelter in Baltimore.
The youth who was released, Ronnell Williams, 18, told The Sun that he and other students watched as "four or five guys" held Simmons to the ground for more than two hours Tuesday. During that time, Williams said, Simmons cried out several times that he couldn't breathe.
"We watched a guy die," Williams said after he was released into his mother's custody.
Hargadon, who is in charge of the city's juvenile court, will hear removal petitions Thursday on behalf of 13 other city youths at Bowling Brook, Forster said.
Of the 170 students at Bowling Brook on Tuesday, 74 were sent there by Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, which has a contract with the private school in Carroll County, according to a department spokesman. The spokesman, Edward Hopkins, said the department did not know where it could place all those youngsters if they are ordered out of Bowling Brook.
Sheriff's deputies are continuing to investigate the death of Simmons, 17. According to the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, staff at Bowling Brook said Simmons collapsed Tuesday evening while being restrained after an outburst in which he threatened to harm other students and school personnel. It was the first death of a youth in the custody of juvenile services since 2001.
The Department of Juvenile Services has dispatched staff to provide indefinite 24-hour supervision inside the school, Hopkins said yesterday. Bowling Brook has been in operation for decades and has enjoyed a positive reputation among youth advocates.
School officials did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Williams said that Simmons was having a hard time adjusting to the program, which he had entered two weeks before his death. He was in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services after a juvenile court effectively found him guilty of armed robbery.
According to Williams' account, Simmons told him Tuesday afternoon, "I'm gonna spaz out," and then had a disobedient outburst before school counselors.
"He couldn't deal with the pressure," said Williams, who spent about a year at Bowling Brook.
Simmons had been physically restrained by staff once before, on Jan. 10, according to a "use of force" report provided by Bowling Brook to the Department of Juvenile Services. Though the report was not sent to the department until Jan. 16, it would not have caused alarm among department officials, Hopkins said.
In 2006, school personnel made nearly 50 such reports to juvenile services, according to records provided by the department. Of those, three included "minor injuries" to the faces of the restrained youths.
In the three emergency hearings yesterday, prosecutors did not object to the removal of the students from the school, and the death of Simmons was not explicitly mentioned.
During the third hearing, defense attorney Deborah St. Jean alluded to a "sidebar" discussion with Hargadon in which, she said, the judge ruled that discussion of Simmons' death would not be admissible.
Youth advocates in the state have expressed surprise that a young man died at Bowling Brook. "My experience with Bowling Brook had always been that it's a great program," Susan B. Leviton, who directs the juvenile law clinic at the University of Maryland, said yesterday.
"When you [visited] Bowling Brook, every kid was involved in sports, they were going to school, they were keeping facilities clean. It was a very active and engaged place." Leviton said.