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‘I can’t breathe’: Probe underway at Glen Mills after staffer attacks boy

Philadelphia's Department of Human Services has temporarily stopped sending children to Glen Mills Schools, the Delaware County residential facility that houses 383 boys and receives the largest number of Philadelphia youth who have committed crimes and are sent to private placements.

Glen Mills Schools is being investigated by city and state officials after two staffers were fired, accused of assaulting a 17-year-old boy in the school.
Glen Mills Schools is being investigated by city and state officials after two staffers were fired, accused of assaulting a 17-year-old boy in the school.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

It was cold in the recreation room at Glen Mills Schools, so a boy from Philadelphia pulled his arms inside his sweater, letting the sleeves hang loose.

>> INVESTIGATION: At Glen Mills, leaders have used the school’s prestige to silence abused students — for decades

This was “guided group” time at Glen Mills, a juvenile program, when the 30 or 40 boys sitting on couches were supposed to air grievances with one another, an effort to keep them from fighting throughout the day. Another teenager made a comment about the boy’s sleeves. A counselor named Chris Medina chimed in. The boy said he could speak for himself.

That’s when Medina stood up, walked over, and hit him in the head from behind. “Stop touching me,” said the 17-year-old — who has asked to be identified by his initials, A.W. — before Medina struck him several more times in the head.

Then the counselor, who is well over 6 feet tall and at least 280 pounds, picked up A.W. by the neck of his sweater, lifted him clear over the back of the couch, and slammed his body onto the floor. Two other counselors held the boy's legs down while Medina choked him with his sweater and punched him in the chin.

The whole time, A.W. remembers, he said the same thing over and over again: "I can't breathe."

The entire July 19 incident was caught on surveillance video. Both the boy's mother and attorney have viewed it and say the footage supports the boy's description of the assault. All three spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News on Thursday.

Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, for now, has stopped sending children to Glen Mills, a residential facility in Delaware County that houses 383 boys and receives the largest number of Philadelphia youth who have committed crimes and are sent to private placements.

Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said DHS is investigating not only the incident, but the full-scale operations of Glen Mills. The 143 boys from Philadelphia currently at the program will remain while the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services conducts its own child-abuse probe and the state police run a criminal investigation. Medina and another staffer were fired.

Figueroa said she has seen the surveillance footage, which has not been publicly released. "Personally, [it was] incredibly difficult to watch, and disappointing to be in a situation to even be contemplating an incident like this," the commissioner said.

In the last five years, at least 13 staffers have been fired and nine more have been reprimanded over at least 14 physical assaults on children at Glen Mills Schools, according to state records. Children were choked, slapped, and had their heads slammed onto counter-tops by staff; one boy was pushed into a closet door so hard that the door broke, while another child's elbow went through a window, shattering it.

Figueroa said she was not aware of these other violent incidents at Glen Mills, where intake has been closed since July 23. The state or school would not typically notify her unless an incident involved a Philadelphia child.

While the Glen Mills incident report describes A.W. being "slapped several times on the back of his head," "lifted" over the couch, and "restrained" on the floor, it downplays the assault, according to interviews with the boy, his mother Tanya, and his attorney.

A.W., who has chronic asthma, said he floated in and out of consciousness as Medina choked him with his sweater on the floor for five minutes.

"What was as chilling as his attack was the fact that the other 30 or 40 children sitting there were motionless," said Leonard Hill, the boy's attorney. "Motionless, and emotionless. No one said anything. Like it was normal."

As A.W. continued to tell the counselor he couldn't breathe, Medina dragged him by the neck up the stairs. "Let's go off-camera," A.W. said Medina told him as he tried to force him into a bathroom. A.W. said he clung to the door frame, afraid of what would happen in the room without cameras. Medina dragged him to the couch. Another staff member punched him in the face.

When it was over, A.W. cried on the couch while another staffer tried to persuade him to not report the incident, he said. They told him that if he left, he'd end up serving more time. A.W. said Medina even made his case, saying "I could lose my job."

A.W.'s back and neck hurt, and he continued to wheeze and complain he could not breathe; but he was not sent to the medical office until the next day, he said.

Glen Mills Schools Executive Director Randy Ireson declined to be interviewed. "We immediately self-reported an isolated incident involving staff that did not uphold our stringent ethical standards and protocols," he said in an emailed statement. "Our first priority has and always will be the safety of our students, so that they may lead full and productive lives. Our school is taking all appropriate steps to prevent future incidents."

The director denied that anyone tried to stop A.W. from making a report. Glen Mills' investigation, while ongoing, has not found evidence that staff interfered with the boy's breathing or tried to take him off-camera, he said.

Ireson said that Glen Mills "has been committed to providing the highest quality of services to at-risk youth, transforming their lives by offering students a future filled with new opportunity, hope, and resiliency."

Originally founded in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge, Glen Mills is the oldest institution of its kind in the United States. Set on over 800 acres of rolling green hills, it looks more like an elite boarding school than a facility for criminal youth. Teenage boys from across the state and country live in cottages and enjoy state-of-the-art athletic facilities, including an Olympic-size pool. Locals play golf on the adjacent 18-hole course.

But the beautiful campus belies flashes of violence that state inspectors have struggled to tamp down for decades.

In 2000, Glen Mills overhauled its staff training and safety programs after eight children told inspectors they were kicked, punched, "chopped in the throat," and slammed into walls by at least 18 staff members, state records show.

Inspectors also said that Glen Mills staff failed to report abuse and threatened boys from reporting it themselves. One was told the school would sue his parents. Another child said he hurt himself so that he could go to a medical facility and safely report the abuse.

Nearly 20 years later, Glen Mills is a popular pick for youth placement among judges, and boasts a board of prominent community leaders. Last year, 162 of Glen Mills' students earned their high school equivalencies, and the school was named Allegheny County Residential Program of the Year. Glen Mills' annual contract with Philadelphia is worth more than $10 million.

After being briefed on the boy's account — specifically that staff attempted to keep the boy from reporting the incident — Figueroa said, "These allegations are very serious, some of which we were unaware of previously and will be included as part of our ongoing investigation of the incident. If these allegations are indeed true, it is intolerable."

Figueroa said this was the first time the city had suspended intake at Glen Mills since she took office in 2016. In May 2017, DHS stopped sending youth to George Junior Republic, an all-boys residential program in Grove City. The city has relied increasingly on Glen Mills as a close-to-home option for delinquent boys.

Ireson, who became executive director of Glen Mills in 2013, declined to comment on the employment records of the staff involved in the assault. Medina did not respond to calls for comment. His Facebook page says he has worked at Glen Mills since 2013. On July 20, the day Medina was fired, he posted, "Just pray."

Glen Mills' "corrective action plan" is due to DHS by Sept. 13.

At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, who leads the Council's Children and Youth Committee, said the incident was "absolutely unacceptable" and she would demand "an entirely full accounting of everything that happened."

"What we want to make sure is that if Glen Mills has a history like this, then a wholesale systemic review has to be undertaken at this facility before we're okay sending kids there again."

At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym

During a hearing convened by Gym in May, Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, showed a video of a child being assaulted by staff at a state-run residential facility she declined to name. "What you're viewing is the counselors really kind of pummeling this one child, and the other ones are sitting back, because this is what's normal to them," Bradford-Grey said. "This is what happens in these placements."

Looming heavy at the hearing was the death of a 17-year-old boy at Wordsworth Academy, a juvenile-treatment center in Philadelphia. Staff attacked David Hess over a stolen cell phone. Shortly before he died, Hess was heard yelling, "Get off me, I can't breathe." His death later was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation. Officials learned of a string of sexual assaults and other problems at Wordsworth, and shut it down.

"What we want to make sure is that if Glen Mills has a history like this, then a wholesale systemic review has to be undertaken at this facility before we're OK sending kids there again," Gym said.

A.W. was on probation for stealing a car when he was sent to Glen Mills for three weeks. The assault happened on his second day.

He is home now, working on his G.E.D. and going to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation group twice a week.

He is tall and skinny, with tattoos like the "100" emoji crawling up his arm, and a ribbon inked on his knuckle for an aunt who died of cancer.

His neck and back are still sore, but sometimes, when his mother steels herself to let him out of her sight, he goes down to the park to play basketball with his friends.

He tells them he is fine after what happened because he is 17. He wants to be a man.

But he is still a child, his mother says, and now he wakes her up, screaming in his sleep.

Staff writer Nathaniel Lash contributed to this report.