POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A faith-based boarding school in Lakeland, where a 17-year old girl was found unconscious and later died, has permanently closed.
“The school closed March 4, 2022, and that is the only information that I have to provide,” wrote Marilyn McGraw, director of Human Resources for Adult and Teen Challenge Southeast in a statement.
McGraw declined to comment further on the reason for the closure or Lakeland Girls Academy or its connection to the death of 17-year-old Naomi Wood, of Vermont, in 2020.
“It’s great that it’s closing. It should be closed. The directors there terribly mismanaged that whole scenario with our daughter,” said Al Wood.
Wood and his wife adopted Naomi from Liberia when she was a toddler, according to a memorial site created by her brother, Nehemiah.
“I miss her hand grabbing my hand and hearing her voice say ‘Dad,'” Al Wood said.
Naomi Wood was a bubbly girl who liked to chat and was showing an interest in photography.
On May 19, 2020, she was found unconscious in her room at Lakeland Girls Academy, part of the Teen Challenge organization. Her parents were told at the time she died unexpectedly, according to Wood.
During a visit a week after her death, the family paid homage to the late teen by gathering around her bed, the top bunk, where they were told she was found unresponsive.
“We received closure from that moment in time as a family because we were all there together to witness that but when I read the DCF report it became abundantly clear that we were lied to,” said Nehemiah Wood, Naomi Wood’s brother.
A report from the Florida Department of Children and Families became public in June 2021 and outlined the state’s findings.
The report says Wood requested to see a doctor about chronic stomach pains in April 2020. According to the report, rather than contacting a doctor, staff at the academy gave her Pepto Bismol 20 times as the symptoms persisted.
Wood had been vomiting for two days prior to her death, according to the report.
“Staff members made the child get up for meals and fed her soup, as that is their protocol when children are sick. They also prayed for her to get better. Facility staff did not seek any medical attention for the child until she was found in her room unresponsive,” the report reads.
First responders found Wood on the floor beside her mattress, which had been moved from the top bunk to the floor.
The DCF report included verified findings of “inadequate supervision and medical neglect” at the academy.
“The facility did not have appropriate protocols in place to address medical emergencies and/or regular medical care with physicians,” the report reads.
The Wood family was shocked.
Al Wood says the organization emailed the teen’s parents one time, asking about her history with stomach problems.
“In the two days before she passed away, she was vomiting, very sick – again we were not contacted and it really comes down to neglect,” he said.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office closed its criminal investigation in November 2021. Her cause of death was ruled a “seizure disorder” by the medical examiner’s office.
“They’re claiming she died from a seizure. We’re saying, she could have – probably not, but that does not take away from the fact that she was neglected to the point where she died,” said Al Wood.
Teen Challenge has declined our request for an interview on this case.
In 2021, after the DCF report became public, Lakeland Girls Academy executive director Dan Williams spoke briefly to reporters outside his home.
“I’ve been advised by our organization just that I can’t comment on anything. We have nothing to hide regarding that incident and we’re in full cooperation with all the entities involved,” he said.
According to the DCF report, Lakeland Girls Academy created a “medical coordinator” position in the wake of Wood’s death, among other changes.
At the time the report was written, the position was being filled by the director’s wife.
The Wood family is seeking more policy changes.
Lawyers representing the family plan to file a wrongful death negligence lawsuit by the end of the week.
“She was neglected and there’s a good chance she would be alive today had they actually taken action and took her to a doctor. It’s as simple as that,” said Al Wood.