As authorities continued to investigate the death of a youth who was being restrained at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School, four young men held there said the school's staff routinely restrained students - sometimes for hours and for minor infractions.
The accounts by the four youths, all juvenile offenders, describe practices that conflict with what state policies and experts say are the proper and widely accepted methods of physically controlling unruly youths. The use of physical restraint should be brief and done only as a last resort to keep a youth from injuring himself or someone else, state officials say.
In separate interviews with The Sun, one youth said he was held to the ground by Bowling Brook staff for four hours as punishment for talking during a meal.
Another said he was restrained four times in his 18 months at the school. A third described the restraint of students as "a regular occurrence" and estimated that he saw it happen once a week.
Three of the four complained that when they were restrained, they had had trouble breathing while being held down.
Officials at Bowling Brook, a privately run residential program for juvenile offenders, declined to comment yesterday on the youths' allegations. The young men were interviewed outside Baltimore's juvenile court as they were released to home detention.
The four were among at least 40 youths who have been removed from Bowling Brook at the request of the Maryland public defender's office since the death last week of Isaiah Simmons, 17, who lost consciousness after being restrained by staff for more than three hours.
At least four youths who witnessed the attack have said staff members "sat on" Simmons while he was held facedown on the ground, according to the Maryland public defender. Two witnesses have told The Sun that Simmons complained during the incident that he couldn't breathe.
The school has said in a written statement that its handling of Simmons was proper.
An expert who teaches restraint techniques to state workers said the training emphasizes that "no weight should be applied" to a youth held facedown in a prone position. "No program will say sit or kneel on them," said Danny Martinez of Jireh Consulting and Training in Albuquerque, N.M. He said most incidents of restraint last one to five minutes.
His firm has been teaching the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services employees who train workers at state-run facilities for about five years but is not involved with any training program at the privately run Bowling Brook.
Youths who were interviewed yesterday described witnessing or being subjected to lengthy periods of restraint.
Maurice Holmes, 18, said he was held to the ground for four hours the first time he was restrained. "It felt like I was going to die," he said. "I'm blowing snot out my nose. I'm saying, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe.'"
Raymond Aur, 17, said he saw people restrained almost every day during his 10 months at Bowling Brook.
He said he was restrained in a seated position three times and on the ground four times. In July, he said, he was restrained for four hours because he disobeyed orders and spoke during a meal. He said workers took him outside and pressed his face into fresh-cut grass. His face was covered with bruises and cuts, he said, and at one point he urinated on himself.
Aur said that three staff members held him down and that the men worked in shifts so that when one got tired, another would take his place. After they released him, Aur said, the guards told him that he had been restrained for four hours - and now "owed" the school four hours of work.
He said he had pain in his arms that continued until the next day, when the staff took him to the hospital. His mother, Sheila Aur, showed a reporter a hospital bill for $386 that was sent to her. The description is for "services for Raymond D. Aur rendered at Carroll Hospital Center" on July 17.
Sheila Aur said that when she visited her son that weekend, he "looked like he'd been beaten by 10 people. ... They said that Ray had been restrained for a long time."
While the state Department of Juvenile Services allows workers at its state-run facilities to use facedown restraint, some programs prohibit that because of the potential to cause harm.
Staff at the Glen Mills Schools, a well-regarded program for juvenile offenders in Pennsylvania, are told not to put a youth facedown, said Jack Rachko, who oversees training there.
"We tell them to do everything possible to keep him faceup," he said. "We never want them facedown, always faceup - and you always monitor their breathing."
He said it is rare for a youth at Glen Mills to be physically restrained for longer than 10 minutes, and it would be brought to the attention of high-level supervisors if a restraint went on for much longer than that.
"You gain control and it's over, usually within 10 minutes," Rachko said. "We don't have extended restraints going on and on and on."
Maryland's policies say physical force - including restraint - is to be used as a last resort and that "only the minimum amount of physical force necessary to control the youth may be used."
But Nichelle Vandervall said her son, who is 16, was restrained with such force that on one occasion, his elbow was dislocated and a blood vessel in his eye burst. "It scared him to death," she said. "He hasn't been restrained since then."
But Vandervall has mixed feelings about the facility. She's noticed a positive change in her son's attitude. "He's not as aggressive as he was," she said.
"Bowling Brook, what they stand for, the opportunity is excellent," she said. "My son is much better than what he was when he got there. He sees that he can be something other than a drug dealer."
Investigators with the Department of Juvenile Services inspect private facilities like Bowling Brook several times a year, according to department spokesman Edward Hopkins. The most recent visit to Bowling Brook was Jan. 12, less than two weeks before Simmons' death. "There were no negatives, no deficiencies or things like that" found in the unscheduled visit, Hopkins said.
Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.