Straight Up with Sherri

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Autistic Student Dies While Being Restrained at School

Prosecutor won't pursue school restraint case

Charges against both school staff and the mother of a student who died while being restrained at Parchment High School were considered by authorities who ultimately decided against charging anyone.

Evidence that 15-year-old Michael Renner-Lewis III, who had autism, hadn't taken medication for at least two days before he died prompted prosecutors to consider charging his mother with child neglect, a letter from the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's Office shows.

Michael had a seizure on the first day of school in August 2003 and became combative, prompting four school staff members to pin his arms and legs to the floor, according to police and witnesses.

He lost consciousness while being restrained, and efforts to revive him at the school and a hospital failed.

Kalamazoo County Sheriff Mike Anderson announced Monday that no charges would be filed in connection with Michael's death.

The prosecutor's office informed Anderson in an April 20 letter that there is insufficient evidence of criminal misconduct or neglect, and agreed with an autopsy report that ruled the death "accidental."

Former County Prosecutor Jim Gregart, who conducted the review, wrote that he did not find the "gross, willful and wanton" conduct necessary to support a charge of manslaughter. Much of his three-page letter to the sheriff, however, discussed potential for a charge of child neglect.

Michael's doctor had prescribed several medications for "behavior management," according to Gregart. Prescription drugs Ativan, Deseryl, Paxil and Risperdal were to be administered to the teen by his adult caregiver daily, including the morning of the day he died, the prosecutor wrote.

Laboratory toxicology tests indicated no detectable levels of any of the four medications in Michael's blood, according to Gregart. Manufacturers reported that each of the drugs has a "significant half-life in the human body" and tests indicated Michael had not taken the prescribed medications for at least two to three days prior to his death.

"The death of Michael Renner-Lewis was a tragic event," Gregart wrote. "It is my opinion that no overwhelming societal interest would be served by the initiation of child neglect charges associated with the reported absence of prescribed medications in his system at the time of his death."

The Kalamazoo Gazette was unable to reach Michael's mother, Elizabeth Johnson for comment.

"The family is extremely disappointed in the decision of the Kalamazoo County prosecutor," Johnson's attorney, Paul Broschay, said. "Our discovery into our (civil) case reveals that the events of Michael's death were totally unnecessary and certainly unjustified."

Broschay filed a $25 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Johnson's behalf alleging negligence in her son's death by Parchment Public Schools and the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, which provided special-education services to Michael.

Standards differ for criminal and civil negligence. Broschay said authorities' decision not to file criminal charges has no bearing on the civil suit, which is set for trial in August.

"The toxicology findings regarding the level of medication in Michael's body have nothing to do with either the events that day or of his death," Broschay said.

"Instead of responding to a medical emergency by calling for EMS, they called a wrestling coach and assistant principal to hold him down on the ground until he died."

Attorneys for school staff denied the use of excessive restraint.

Prosecutor Jeff Fink said he agreed with Gregart's decision that no charges are warranted.

Gregart, who retired in January and has stayed on as an unpaid assistant to Fink, had extensively reviewed the case by the time Fink took over. "He had had it for a year and we figured there was no sense in having me go through everything," Fink said.

ACCIDENT? No negligence here? The medication was supposed to be administered daily. Why did the school not call 911 when the child started having seizures? The 16-year-old, 6'0" tall, 200 pound autistic teen had a grand mal seizure. The student had seizures first, and when he recovered from them, he then became "combative." A wrestling coach was called to help restrain the boy, and not until he was unconscience, did they call for help? If these are truly the facts, EVERYONE FAILED THIS CHILD! EVERYONE!


  • Sherri,

    This one broke my heart. He WAS failed! Just the loss of the paxil alone, which is the mildest of the prescriptions he had, I think, and which is widely prescribed, over two days has a strong decrease in the amount of it that stays in the bloodstream (its 1/2 life), and leads to electric shocks running through your brain, and dizziness, strong headaches....not to mention the other medications. I am amazed that anyone let these medicines slip up that way, but then also that no medics were called when he had his seizure! Or especially when he behave bizarrely afterwards....

    I grieve for him.

    By Anonymous Juleni, at 6:23 PM  

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