Death probe spurs debate

Bowling Brook youths not questioned out of school, some say

February 24, 2007|By Gadi Dechter and Greg Garland | Gadi Dechter and Greg Garland,sun reporters

A month after a youth died while being restrained at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School, authorities have not determined what caused his death or whether any laws were broken in the way the juvenile facility's staff handled him.

Though investigators say dozens of people have been interviewed, key student eyewitnesses to Isaiah Simmons' death have not been contacted by the Carroll County Sheriff's Office since the youths were removed from the residential program, according to students and their families.

Investigators from different agencies did question the students in interviews at Bowling Brook immediately after Simmons' death Jan. 23, officials have said.

But experts say the youths should have been interviewed again -- in a different setting and away from the school's staff -- after the juvenile court ordered their removal from the facility.

"The first time, they may have felt constrained to say anything because of fear of retaliation," said Timothy T. Williams Jr., a retired Los Angeles homicide detective who runs a private investigation firm. "I would interview them after they'd been removed."

A spokesman for the sheriff's office said the agency has conducted more than 40 interviews, including many with students, but he declined to say where or provide other details.

"Who was interviewed and what was discussed, I don't know and wouldn't be able to tell you if I did know," said Lt. Phil Kasten, the spokesman.

He said the sheriff's office "has applied the greatest resources and tenacity toward the investigation" while waiting for a report from the state medical examiner on the cause of Simmons's death. "This investigation will take as long as necessary, and that could easily be a couple of more weeks," Kasten said.

The methods allegedly used to restrain Simmons at Bowling Brook, a privately run residential program for juvenile offenders, have provoked criticism from medical experts and national authorities on safe ways to subdue unruly youths.

Witnesses have said they saw Bowling Brook staff members sit on the struggling teen until he passed out. In a written statement, Bowling Brook officials have denied any improper conduct. The school's own account of the incident, contained in a required report to the state, describes a three-hour confrontation involving physical restraint that ended when the East Baltimore youth lost consciousness.

Simmons was pronounced dead at Carroll Hospital Center. The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is handling the investigation.

Ronnell Williams is one of several youths who discussed the incident with The Sun after he was removed from Bowling Brook at his lawyers' request. He described in graphic terms watching Simmons lose consciousness after staff sat on him. "He told them he was hurting, he told them he couldn't breathe," Williams said. "Didn't nobody want to believe him."

Williams said that before being released from the school, students "were afraid to talk" to authorities, fearing retaliation from Bowling Brook staff. In the month since a judge ordered him removed from the school, Williams has not been contacted by sheriff's deputies or state police, his mother said yesterday.

Giovanni El-Shird, 18, who witnessed part of Simmons' three-hour struggle with Bowling Brook staff, said he hasn't been contacted by investigators since returning to Baltimore, either. The mother of a third student who saw Simmons being restrained also said her son hasn't been interviewed since leaving Bowling Brook.

Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster issued a statement yesterday expressing confidence "that the sheriff's department and Maryland State Police will interview our clients in a confidential setting away from Bowling Brook."

Though some experts said the youths should have been interviewed again after they left the school, others said the initial interviews might have yielded sufficient information.

"Sometimes you're going to get the best information right after the incident went down," said John L. Sullivan, former chief of detectives for the Las Vegas Police Department.

A preliminary review by the medical examiner found no "apparent trauma" to Simmons' body.

After the medical examiner issues its final report and sheriff's deputies conclude their investigation, the case will go to David P. Daggett, chief deputy state's attorney in Carroll County.

"We would look at all of the facts," Daggett said.

If there are conflicting facts, the matter could be presented to a grand jury to decide whether an indictment is warranted, Daggett said.

Bowling Brook officials said they would like to comment but have been advised by their attorneys not to do so. It is clear that Simmons' death has taken a toll on the school.

The school was housing 170 juvenile offenders at the time of Simmons' death. But the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services has removed all but nine of the 74 youths it had placed there. Other states have also pulled youths out.

A juvenile services spokesman said the school, which is licensed by DJS, had about 70 students as of this week. All Bowling Brook staff members involved in restraining Simmons have been placed on administrative leave, said Edward Hopkins, the spokesman.

Bowling Brook is well-regarded by many in Carroll County, and youths from the school frequently are involved in civic activities.

Nancy B. McCormick, economic development director of Taneytown and a strong supporter of Bowling Brook's program, said the school and its students are one of the nominees for the county's philanthropist of the year award next month.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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