'Get off me, I can't breathe!' Documents detail death at W. Philly's Wordsworth Academy

An exterior view of Wordsworth Academy, the West Philadelphia school where a 17-year-old boy was found dead after allegedly being restrained and punched by staff members.

A 17-year-old boy who died Oct. 13 at Wordsworth Academy, a residential treatment center in West Philadelphia for troubled youth, stopped breathing after staff members restrained his legs and threw punches at his rib cage, state documents allege.

Children in the hallway overheard the incident, which took place in the teen's room after 8 p.m., according to violation reports from the Department of Human Services.

The reports say the children heard the boy proclaim: " 'I can take this, that's the only thing you got, give me more. I eat those and I can take those.' " They then heard the boy yell, " 'Get off me, I can't breathe!' " the reports say, and then "everything went silent."

The boy - identified in the reports as Child #1 - was declared dead at 9:51 p.m.

<<< Read the order and a portion of the first violation report here >>>

The account of the boy's death is the most detailed description yet of events that led the state on Monday to order Wordsworth to close its residential treatment program, which has served more than 80 youths who have emotional, behavioral, or academic difficulties.

The reports also allege that some staff members - including two in the room during the fight with the boy - were not sufficiently trained in restraining children; that its program director "failed to provide implementation of policies related to restraints"; and that the facility had hazardous living conditions including broken heating and air-conditioning units, holes in bedroom walls, and rusted and corroded bathroom facilities.

In addition, the reports allege that an unidentified staff member last year had "sexual contact" with three children. The staff member was removed from the program and ultimately fired, the documents say.

Debbie Albert, a Wordsworth spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the organization was "limited in our ability to comment on the various allegations raised" due to the ongoing investigation.

"We are fully cooperating with all relevant agencies and authorities and are treating this matter with the seriousness and respect it deserves," she said in a statement.

No one has been charged in the boy's death, and the Medical Examiner's Office has not ruled on its cause. Authorities have not released his name or hometown.

Meanwhile, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is expected to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for hearings on the "recent death of a juvenile at Wordsworth Academy, and future plans for safety at juvenile treatment facilities caring for Philadelphia youth."

Hearings already were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Philadelphia Family Court to determine where children at Wordsworth's residential program should be sent.

Wordsworth offers additional services such as foster care and therapy, which are unaffected by the order to close the residential treatment program.

The agency is one of 10 that contract with the city's Department of Human Services as "community umbrella organizations" (CUAs), which handle cases while DHS runs oversight and the 24/7 hotline for reporting suspected abuse.

The violation reports were included with the state's order to close Wordsworth's residential treatment program. The order was sent Monday to Wordsworth's president, Debra S. Lacks, in a letter signed by Jacqueline L. Rowe, director of the state Bureau of Human Services Licensing.

Rowe wrote that the state ordered the closure due to "gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct" in Wordsworth's residential program.

The violation reports - many of which are dated Oct. 14, the day after the boy's death - detail approximately 40 violations of the state code regulating juvenile facilities.

The reports do not name any staff members allegedly involved in the confrontation with the teen, identifying them only as Staff Members A, B, and C.

According to the reports, multiple staff members had entered the boy's room because he was suspected of stealing another child's iPod.

During the search, the reports say, Staff Member A flipped over the boy's bed and threw furniture around. The iPod eventually was found in a soap box in the room and was returned to its owner, the reports say. Staff members then heard the sound of breaking glass from the boy's room.

Staff Members A, B, and C returned, the reports say, and found the boy behaving aggressively. In an attempt to restrain him, Staff Member B held the boy's legs and Staff Member A began "throwing punches at the ribs of Child #1," according to the reports.

At some point during the restraint, the reports say, the boy "began gasping for breath." Children in the hallway reported hearing him yelling to "get off me, I can't breathe" before the room went silent.

Although state law requires staff members to have 40 hours of training per year, the reports say that Staff Member B had completed only 31 hours during the 2015-16 training year, and that Staff Member C had completed only 27.

The reports also say the program director and Staff Member E - neither of whom is identified - "failed to protect Child #1 from harm while in care" and did not properly implement restraint-related policies.

The reports say those individuals did not comply with regulations about maintenance of the site, and detail a host of violations, including:

Broken heating and air-conditioning units in 10 rooms.

"Stained, dirty, and unsanitary" flooring in 12 rooms.

Several bathrooms with either running faucets, rusted shower heads, or standing water.

Inoperable lights in a fourth-floor hallway.

Heaters in two bedrooms with "razor sharp edges."

At least 12 rooms with exposed electrical wires.

Holes in the walls, including one bedroom with a three-foot hole, and another room with a wall "caved in toward the back of the shower wall."

A violation report from last year that was included in the state's letter to Wordsworth also alleges that an unidentified staff member had "sexual contact" with three children in 2015.

The report, dated April 20, 2016, does not provide additional detail about the alleged abuse, but says that the staff member had sexual contact with one child twice, with another child three times, and with yet another child four times. The staff member was "immediately removed from the program" and subsequently fired, the report says.

Three other violation reports from the last year also detail incidents of staff members' inappropriately physically restraining children. Another report says the staff "did not report suspect child abuse" to the proper authorities, but does not elaborate.

Wordsworth's residential program, which opened in 2006, is housed on one of the agency's three campuses in the area. The others are in East Falls and Fort Washington, according to the agency's website.

The Ford Road campus sits on a small hill near Daphne Road just outside the western edge of Fairmount Park. Children could be seen Wednesday playing on a playground outside the small Wordsworth building.

The residential program will continue to operate there as children are relocated. Kait Gillis, a state DHS spokeswoman, said this week that department officials would be on hand daily until that process was complete.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

215-854-2817@cs_palmer

Staff writers Tricia L. Nadolny and Michaela Winberg contributed to this article.