LAKELAND, Fla. - A 17-year-old girl living at a boarding school for girls in Lakeland complained of stomach issues for nearly a month – but was denied professional medical treatment – before she died in May of 2020, according to reports by the Polk County medical examiner and the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The ME ruled the girl's death as natural, but a recently released report from Florida’s DCF calls into question the practices at the faith-based Lakeland Girls Academy for girls who have been deemed to have issues ranging from defiance to substance abuse.
The victim died May 19, 2020. A month before, she asked to be seen by a doctor for chronic stomach pain, the DCF report says. She was never taken for treatment and staff never consulted with a physician. Instead, the report estimated she was given Pepto-Bismol on approximately 20 separate occasions to deal with the ongoing stomach pain.
The day before she died, she was physically ill and vomiting throughout the day and night, the report says.
Per the school’s internal policies, staff members made the girl get up for meals and fed her soup. Staff members also prayed for her to get better, according to the report.
Grace Coburn, a student at the academy years ago, says that comes as no surprise.
"We would ask to see a doctor and if they didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, we would not be able to see a doctor," explained Coburn. "We had no way of calling anyone on our own to get help for ourselves. All our abilities to access the outside world were completely taken away from us."
Coburn says the staff’s decision was always final.
The day after the girl reportedly vomited all day, she was found unresponsive in her room. CPR was performed until EMS arrived, but she died while on the way to Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
The Lakeland Girls Academy describes itself as a therapeutic boarding school for girls aged 13-17 who struggle with rebellion, defiance, academics, substance abuse, and other life-controlling issues.
The child arrived from Vermont in February 2020 and was enrolled in the academy by her parents.
FOX 13 News reached out to officials at the home but has not heard back.
The parents of the girl, identified online as Naomi Wood, refused an interview but wrote on the website of their business, "We are so grateful for the staff and the love they gave Naomi in her short time there, and we were excited for the direction she was finding for herself."
According to DCF's report, at the time of the girl's death, the facility did not have appropriate protocols in place to address medical emergencies or regular care with physicians. An investigation by DCF found inadequate supervision and medical neglect by two specific caregivers.
According to an autopsy report, the cause of death was seizure disorder. The report also states that the girl had a history of an isolated seizure in the past. No drugs or alcohol were found in her system.
While her death was ruled to be from natural causes, there were concerns from other residents and staff members regarding the lack of medical care she received.
A medical consultation was completed by Dr. Carol Lilly, medical director for Florida’s Child Protection Team. She noted in her report that the child’s death was "consistent with delay in seeking care and medical neglect."
The child’s death wasn’t the only issue Dr. Lilly found at the Lakeland Girls Academy. The final case summary from the Child Protection Team noted Lilly’s concerns related to the management of mental health issues within the academy.
Roommates described the girl as being anxious, depressed and having nightmares. The report also indicates the child had been sexually abused in the past.
Dr. Lilly was not able to find any documentation that the child was receiving any mental health services. Instead, she found the academy was using the practice of shunning, or not allowing others to speak to the child, which Lilly does not recommend.
"For a child with reported past sexual abuse, depressive and anxious symptoms, this type of discipline is not recommended. A coping strategy for these concerns involves talking to others, not excluding them from contact with others," Lilly's report said.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death. No charges have been filed.
Since the death, the director of the academy told investigators that they have updated their policies, procedures and created a new position of medical coordinator, which will be responsible for assessing medical issues before admission to the school. At the time of the report, the director’s wife was currently filling that position while they search for a permanent employee.