“He was just screaming, ‘I can’t breathe,’”; Teenager says he witnessed Cornelius Fredricks' death

Posted at 11:15 PM, Jun 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-28 14:29:32-04

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — An Ohio teenager says he watched staff members at a Kalamazoo school restrain his fellow classmate.

The student is 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks.

Police say he later died after the April 29 incident at an area hospital.

“He was just screaming, ‘I can’t breathe,’” said Nathaniel Dixson.

Dixson is a 15-year-old from Canton, Ohio who says he went to Lakeside Academy in January after being ordered to go there.

According to Dixson, Fredericks was a friend from the start, explaining he helped him adjust to the school.

“Funny, happy, outgoing, and, you know, cool,” said Dixson.

Dixson says in April, he watched six staff members grab Fredericks after throwing food in the school’s cafeteria.

Police filed charges against three former Lakeside Academy staff members this week.

According to police, they used an illegal restraint while discipling Fredricks that lead to his death and failed to get him medical treatment.

“Just remember him screaming and everybody going crazy,” said Dixson.

Dixson says other students were forced out of the cafeteria, but were then let back in. He says when they returned, he saw Fredericks’ lying still on the floor.

“They poured water on him, basically said he was faking,” said Dixson. “Then that’s when they started, where’s the scissors? They started cutting his shirt, doing CPR. It took a while. That’s when we cleared out for good.”

Dixson says he and other students were upset, with some even rioting. In the days after, he says many employees quit, while other staff members threatened to do what had allegedly happened to Fredericks to the other students.

“I was just a nervous wreck,” said Amanda Judy, Dixson’s mother. “I could not get to my son. I felt so helpless.”

Judy says it’s something no child or parent should experience, but explains the incident didn’t surprise her.

She and Dixson claim staff members at Lakeside Academy physically abused him at least seven times during his five months there, slapping and punching him and using a similar restraint to the one allegedly used on Fredericks.

“It just makes me want to do more for my son, for his behavioral problems,” said Judy. “But the next time, I will not agree to a facility. I don’t care. After the experience with Lakeside, no.”

Both agree the recent changes and charges are a step in the right direction, but believe more will need to be done in the months ahead.

“Not one person, could stand up for this child?” asked Judy. “It just blows my mind. It’s definitely impacting my son, with the way that he behaves and thinks and is completely, you know, changed”

“It just makes us really thankful,” said Judy. “I believe we got closer because I feel like it could have been him.”

Sequel Youth Services, the company that hired the workers, sent FOX17 the following statement:

"At Sequel Youth and Family Services, we remain committed to continuous improvement and ongoing education to ensure we are providing the clients we serve with the care and resources necessary for successful lives after treatment. The tragic loss of Cornelius at Lakeside Academy has only served to strengthen our resolve to reduce, minimize, and eventually eliminate the use of restraints on our campuses. We are committed to making the necessary changes to ensure something like this never happens again.

Regarding the incident at Lakeside Academy, we strongly support the decision of the prosecutor’s office to bring criminal charges, which was based on a very thorough law enforcement investigation. We will continue to fully cooperate throughout this process to ensure justice is served. This was a tragic and senseless incident.
We have been actively working to address recent events at Lakeside Academy, while continuing to make necessary and proactive changes within our programs, including an organizational restructure that provides an enhanced emphasis and focus on Clinical and Compliance. With this, we have accelerated the work already underway across our organization to move to a restraint-free model of care at every Sequel program. This work includes completing the implementation of Ukeru Behavior Management Program which we started last August, establishing a system-wide initiative for restraint reduction spearheaded by a diverse, multidisciplinary team, and implementation of a holistic culture transformation to trauma-informed care through The Sanctuary Model™ later this summer.

Sequel's commitment to providing informed behavioral health treatment and ongoing, compassionate care to at-risk youth nationwide remains unchanged, and we continue to be unrelenting advocates for those we serve."

Lakeside for Children, the non-profit that owns the Lakeside Academy buildings and property, sent FOX17 the following statement:

“Lakeside for Children has been caring for vulnerable children on the same Kalamazoo, Michigan campus since we were established as a charitable nonprofit organization in 1907. We’ve helped thousands of boys and girls gain the self-determination, behaviors, and educational foundation they need to be successful, independent, and contributing citizens.

The recent death of Lakeside for Children student Cornelius Frederick following a restraint by staff members is heartbreaking, senseless, and runs completely counter to our mission “to provide at-risk youth an opportunity to learn new skills and behaviors in a caring, hope-filled, and supportive environment.”

We continue to extend our deepest sympathies to Cornelius’s family and friends, including his fellow Lakeside students and other members of our campus community who mourn his loss. We also continue to cooperate fully with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in their investigations.”