The Canadian Press, May 29, 2020
The parents of a disabled teen who died in the care of an Ontario residential school for the blind say they’re hopeful a newly called inquest into their son’s death may protect a future generation of vulnerable students.
The province’s coroner’s office has confirmed to The Canadian Press that it will hold an inquest in to the February 2018 death of 18-year-old Samuel Brown at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont.
Brown’s parents have said their son’s death was shrouded in mystery and controversy, alleging he was in good health the weekend before he died. They also allege that only 12 hours passed between the time they received a phone call indicating their son was slightly unwell and when he was pronounced dead in hospital.
The couple began campaigning last fall for a province-led investigation into the matter, saying medical officials have reached conflicting conclusions about Brown’s cause of death.
A spokeswoman for the Office of Ontario’s Chief Coroner confirmed that an inquiry will take place, though details about a start date and location are still being determined.
The news comes as a relief to Brown’s parents, Andrea and Gladstone Brown, who said the inquest will hopefully provide answers for their family and others.
“I want to know what really transpired … because up to now we have no clue,” Andrea Brown said in a telephone interview. “We’re doing this not just for us, but for … those that cannot help themselves.”
The W. Ross Macdonald school referred questions on the pending inquest to the Ontario Ministry of Education, which referred them to the coroner’s office.
Andrea Brown said her son was born with a genetic condition that left him blind, deaf and non-verbal.
He began attending W. Ross Macdonald, the province’s only dedicated school for the blind and deafblind, starting at the age of four and experienced no problems for most of his tenure, she said.
Brown said her son was in perfect health on the weekend of Feb. 2, 2018 — the last time she saw him alive.
She heard no reports of illness until the evening of Feb. 8, when a staff member called to say her son was “a bit fussy” and unwilling to get up for dinner.
She next heard from the school at 6:30 the next morning, at which point she learned he had been rushed to a nearby hospital.
It wasn’t until she and her husband reached the hospital themselves, she said, that they learned their son was already dead by the time he was sent for medical help.
The Browns said the investigating coroner produced a report saying their son had died of natural causes.
Dissatisfied with the finding, the family requested an autopsy. The resulting report concluded he died of pneumonia, a finding that only deepened the family’s confusion.
The family began campaigning for an inquest in September and drew support from politicians, academics and others across Canada. An online petition in support of their cause drew more than 3,500 signatures.
Samuel Brown’s said a thorough inquiry into the circumstances leading to their son’s death is necessary for the sake of families of other disabled children without access to similar resources.
Their lawyer, Saron Gebresellassi, said she hopes the inquest will prompt a deeper examination of the way disabled lives are valued in the education system and beyond.
“It’s really a call for our society to put a mirror up to itself and ask some questions about … how something like this can happen and how we can prevent it in the future,” she said.
This 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 suit claimed staff members often resorted to violence, such as forcing students to drink from urinals and jumping on the backs of those as young as six years old.
The statement of claim also alleged staff preyed upon the visual impairments of students, sneaking up on them during private conversations and spinning students around to deliberately disorient them.
The plaintiffs settled the suit with the Ontario government for $8 million the day before a trial in the case was due to get underway.