An agonizing three-year wait for answers now has an end in sight for the Brampton family of a disabled teen who died in the care of an Ontario residential school for the blind.
“On the one hand, three years seems so long but on the other hand, it still seems so fresh,” said Andrea Brown, in a statement to the Star Monday on the eve of the third anniversary of her 18-year-old son Samuel Brown’s sudden death at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont., on Feb. 9, 2018.
“How could this happen?” she asked.
After a year of campaigning from the family, the Ontario coroner’s office agreed to proceed with a discretionary inquest last year. (Samuel’s case did not meet the threshold for a mandatory inquest because it didn’t involve a worker killed at a construction site or mine, or a death in police custody or jail environment.)
The coroner’s inquest into Samuel’s death is slated to go ahead this year, though the exact date has yet to be set in stone, David Cameron, the regional supervising coroner, told the Star Monday.
“I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it before the end of 2021,” Cameron said. “I know that’s an important timeline for the family, that’s why I’m trying to make it happen.”
For his parents, Samuel’s death has been shrouded in mystery.
He began attending W. Ross Macdonald, the province’s only dedicated school for the blind and deaf-blind, starting at age four and experienced no problems for most of his tenure.
And he was in good health on the weekend of Feb. 2, 2018 — the last time his mother saw him alive.
Then, on Feb. 8, she said a staff member called to say her son was “a bit fussy’’ and unwilling to get up for dinner.
She said she next heard from the school at 6:30 a.m. the following morning, at which point she learned Samuel had been rushed to a nearby hospital. Brown and her husband later learned their son was already dead by the time he was sent for medical help.
Samuel’s family requested an autopsy, which concluded he died of pneumonia.
The family began campaigning for an inquest in 2019 and drew support from politicians, academics and others across Canada. An online petition in support of their cause drew more than 3,500 signatures.
Saron Gebresellassi, the lawyer representing the family, revealed new details from an ambulance incident report on the case.
That report, which was shared with the Star, Monday, shows that when paramedics arrived, school staff had been checking on Samuel hourly because he was unwell with laboured breathing.
At 6 a.m. on Feb. 9, they found him “unresponsive with vomit noted in his airways,” the report reads. Staff rolled him into a recovery position and called 9-1-1.
Firefighters who were first on scene found Brown in a “medical cardiac arrest,” the report shows. They initiated CPR before paramedics arrived.
Gebresellassi said vomit in Samuel’s airways could have been deadly for him because of his disability, which rendered him unable to move on his own. He was born with a genetic condition that left him blind, deaf and non-verbal.
At a virtual news conference marking the third anniversary of Samuel’s death Tuesday, Gebresellassi said she hopes the upcoming inquest can ensure that necessary safeguards are put in place to protect other vulnerable youth, including recommendations for more effective oversight and better training of staff at facilities like W. Ross Macdonald.
“The hope is that history does not repeat itself,” Gebresellassi said Tuesday.
Andrea Brown said she has faith in the inquest, even though the answers won’t be enough to fill the void left by her son.
“Samuel’s room remains exactly the same the way he left it,” she said.
Samuel’s case is not the first time the school has faced allegations of student mistreatment.
A class-action lawsuit alleged students attending the school between 1951 and 2012 were subjected to psychological degradation, physical violence and sexual abuse.
The plaintiffs settled the suit with the Ontario government for $8 million the day before a trial in the case was due to begin.
Jason Miller, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star