Council agrees to public hearing on Wordsworth student’s death

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones

Two weeks after a teenager died in a scuffle with staff at Wordsworth Academy in West Philadelphia, City Council unanimously agreed Thursday to hold a public hearing about the private school and its residential program for troubled children.

A 17-year-old boy died there on Oct. 13 after several staffers restrained him in his room during a dispute over an iPod. The boy quit breathing after staffers restrained his legs and pummeled his ribs, according to state reports the Philadelphia Inquirer obtained. Children who overheard the fracas from the hallway told authorities they heard the teen say: “Get off me, I can’t breathe!”

The state Department of Human Services on Monday ordered Wordsworth to close its residential treatment program due to “gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct.”

Homicide detectives are investigating the case as a “sudden death.” The Medical Examiner hasn’t yet ruled on how the boy died, nor whether it was a homicide, accidental or otherwise.

City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. introduced the resolution for a joint hearing of the public safety and health and human services committees to hear testimony about both the incident and the school. A hearing date has not been set.

“When you take a child from their family and say that government will treat them, care for them, better than the parent, you have a higher standard to meet, and death is not that standard,” Jones said. “My hope is: No. 1, that we get the answers to those questions about what privatization of DHS has done; and No. 2, what we hope to do is make sure that what happened to that young person never happens again.”

Jones said he has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — asked child-welfare authorities for proof of progress made by children placed there.

“This is nothing new for us, we’ve been questioning [them] since their inception. Each budget year, I asked about whether or not they are more efficient, more productive, [have] better outcomes than people who wound up in the system,” Jones said. “Truth be told, we have not seen any of those quantitative measurements, and then along came this death.”

Of the teen’s death, Jones added: “You have a right as a staffer to defend yourself, but you do not have a right to make a temporary placement a death sentence.”

The academy released a statement Wednesday, saying they were “saddened” by the teen’s death and “devastated” by the allegations against them.

“We are fully cooperating with all relevant agencies and authorities and are treating this matter with the seriousness and respect it deserves,” the statement read.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.