Special-ed student dies after scuffle

School staff member, 17-year-old were involved in altercation

Witnesses' accounts vary

Prince George's police investigating whether crime was committed

May 15, 2001|By Todd Richissin and Stephanie Desmon | Todd Richissin and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - A 17-year-old special education student died yesterday after tumbling to the ground and going into cardiac arrest during an altercation with a school staff member, officials said.

The student, Carlton Eugene Thomas, was bruised about the face during the incident, said his mother, Sheila H. Bracey, who sped to the hospital and identified her only child.

Her son, who was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 145 pounds, complained last week that he had been physically abused by staff members at the school, she said.

She said she had intended to withdraw him next week from the residential school in southern Prince George's County, which is run by Edgemeade, a private, nonprofit organization.

"Now I'm left with no child and no answers," Bracey said in an interview. "I'm so sorry I didn't get him out."

Police are investigating to determine whether a crime was committed.

"Different witnesses are saying different things," said Cpl. Robert Clark of the Prince George's County Police Department. "We do know for sure that there was a physical altercation."

An autopsy will be performed.

The incident occurred about 9:30 a.m. at Raymond A. Rogers Jr. School, an all-boys school that provides services for special education students and those with emotional problems. Thomas was among 54 students living at the school. Twenty others attend day classes.

A school spokeswoman, Elin Jones, said a few students were involved in a scuffle in a multipurpose room. Staff members intervened. When one of them grabbed Thomas, the two hit the floor, Jones said, and the student went into cardiac arrest.

Staff members performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Thomas, Jones said, until a helicopter arrived to take him to Prince George's Hospital. He was declared dead at 10:53 a.m.

In a written statement, school officials said staff members are trained to safely restrain students who pose a threat to themselves or others. "The procedures are used only when a range of de-escalating methods have been tried first and have not worked," the statement said.

Bracey said her son had a lot to deal with at an early age but seemed to be adjusting to meet his challenges.

He spent as much time as he could with his 23-month-old daughter, Tahjai, and had pushed his grade point average to 3.5. But he was hyperactive and had behavioral problems that required enrolling him at the school, his mother said.

Students are referred to the school by the Department of Social Services, local school districts or the state's juvenile justice agency. Many of the students have behavioral problems.

"He's a nice boy," his mother said. "I just wanted to save him from himself."

Bracey said her son was enrolled in the school in May 1999, returning home each day after classes. By November, after he began missing curfew and running away from their District Heights home, she decided he needed more supervision than she could provide.

"He wasn't following my rules here, and I needed him in a more structured environment," said Bracey, a substance abuse counselor for the District of Columbia. "Obviously, the structure I thought he'd get here isn't the structure I was counting on."

She said school officials have not informed her of any details surrounding her son's death.

As a reward for positive behavior, Thomas was soon to be allowed to stay overnight at home on weekends.

His mother said she was at home yesterday morning when the phone rang and a school official told her to get to Southern Maryland Hospital Center because her son had been injured. When she arrived there, she said, she was told that she had been sent to the wrong hospital, and she raced to Prince George's Hospital Center.

"The doctor came to me and told me that Carlton had been assaulted," his mother said. "They said they weren't able to resuscitate."

She said her son's face was bruised but that nobody at the hospital, the school or the county police department could tell her why.

She said her son was restrained by a staff member Thursday and that he showed her a bump on his head and scratches on his arms. He told her they came from a staff member who got him to the ground and put his full weight on Thomas' head.

"I told him not to worry, that I was getting him out of there," Bracey said.

School officials said in the statement that light scratching and bruising occurs during "therapeutic holds" but that a nurse attends to them immediately.

In addition to the police investigation, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which licenses the school, will visit it today.

"We'll be down there ... to look at the restraint policies and what happened with this boy," said Carol Benner, director of the Office of Health Care Quality.

Edgemeade, also known as the Maryland Center for Youth and Family Development Inc., has not been the subject of complaints to the state in the past two years and seems to have "a pretty good track record," Benner said.

Today's classes have been canceled, but students, teachers and staff members are to meet for discussions and grief counseling.

Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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