The mother of a 16-year-old boy with special needs who died after being physically restrained by school staff for allegedly refusing to leave the basketball court at his school has filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the school.
"Losing Corey has been a painful and tragic occurrence," said Sheila Foster, the mother of Corey Foster. "It's emotionally stressful. I took this course of action to hold Leake & Watts school accountable and to help change laws on restraint and seclusion in schools."
"I just don't want this to happen to another child," said Foster. The lawsuit, filed in New York City, charges that Leake & Watts School of suburban Yonkers, N.Y., and four specific staff members used "physical force" on Corey "which resulted in pain, suffering, choking, pre-death terror, and ultimately the death" of the student.
Surveillance video made public last month and aired on ABC News shows the teenager playing basketball in the school gym alongside other students and staff members on April 18, 2012. Minutes later he is surrounded by staff in a corner of the gym where it appears he is pushed against the wall and then restrained face-down by four staff members. Nearly 45 minutes later he was removed from the gym on a stretcher.
"They circled him like thugs or a gang," said the Foster family's lawyer, Jacob Oresky. "The staff members at Leake & Watts exercised a lot of force on Corey Foster and they killed him." Oresky said Leake & Watts has never issued an apology or acknowledged any degree of fault in Corey's death. He wouldn't name a precise figure that the family is seeking, but said "we anticipate this will be a multi-million-dollar lawsuit."
"Schools and educational facilities need to understand that they are trusted with our children and they should exercise the highest possible degree of care in safeguarding their well being," said Oresky. "In this case Leake & Watts failed to do so and we don't want to see any other children at their facility or anywhere else injured or hurt due to carelessness."
An autopsy ruled Corey's death an accident, saying he suffered "cardiac arrest during an excited state while being subdued." In an email statement to ABC News, Meredith Barber, director of institutional advancement at Leake & Watts, said, "The consistent findings of extensive third party independent reviews by the police, the District Attorney's office, the medical examiner and state officials support Leake & Watts' own internal review, which determined that on the night of April 18th staff followed appropriate therapeutic practices designed to support the young people in our care. Corey Foster's death was a tragedy."
"In regard to the lawsuit," said Barber, "we look forward to addressing its claims in court. Meanwhile, we remain focused on serving children, adults and families with a wide range of needs and look towards doing all that we can in the service of others."
Sheila Foster has joined forces with parents around the country whose children have been killed or injured as a result of being physically restrained or put into seclusion rooms at school. They are fighting back and speaking up in support of national legislation that seeks to institute a uniform standard on restraint and seclusion for the nation's school.
"There's thousands and thousands of children that have been traumatized, that have been injured at the hands of the caregivers and it's just unacceptable," said Rep. George Miller, D.-California, sponsor of the new legislation.
While progress has been made at the state level in strengthening laws and statues, many parents and advocacy groups in support of the federal legislation say it's been too slow and the inconsistencies between and within states leave children with disabilities vulnerable.
Foster said she grieves the loss of her son every day and is determined to help make a difference regarding restraints and seclusions in schools. "It's been an emotional rollercoaster but I'm willing to ride it out until I see justice for Corey," said Foster. "I'm not stopping."
"I know I won't feel him hug me anymore, or say, 'I love you, mommy,'" said Foster. "And this shouldn't happen anymore to another child, to another family. Someone powerful has to step in and say this isn't right."