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School Permanently Closes, Three Employees Charged After Restraint Death of Autistic Student

Update: On Nov. 12, 2019, Guiding Hands School and three former employees will be charged with felony involuntary manslaughter for the death of 13-year-old Max Benson in 2018, according to El Dorado County District Attorney’s office. In addition to the school, Guiding Hands Executive Director and Site Administrator Cindy Keller, Principal Staranne Meyers and and special education teacher Kimberly Wohlwend, who restrained Benson, have also been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Their arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 13. 

Update: Though Guiding Hands was given a stay by a judge on Jan. 11 to temporarily keep its certification, it will now shutdown permanently. Another non-public school will be able to take over the facility. Some former staff members could be hired, and students from Guiding Hands will be allowed to attend, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Guiding Hands School in El Dorado, California, is shutting down six weeks after the death of 13-year-old student Max Benson. Benson, who was on the autism spectrum, was restrained in a classroom on Nov. 28, 2018, and became unresponsive after being held facedown for nearly an hour.

The California Department of Education (CDE) revoked the school’s certification on Wednesday, which means the private school cannot run. School officials announced it would be closing Friday, according to CBS Sacramento. Current Guiding Hands students will be placed in other schools. More than 20 parents had already pulled their children following Benson’s death.

The CDE decided to revoke Guiding Hand’s certification because the school did not notify CDE in writing the circumstances surrounding Benson’s death, according to The Sacramento Bee. The school also violated state rules regarding physical restraints.

The school is planning to fight the revocation of its certification. In a letter to parents obtained by The Sacramento Bee, school Executive Director Cindy Keller and Principal Starranne Meyers said they intend to appeal these “subjective findings.”

In December, CDE had suspended Guiding Hands’ certification, meaning it could continue providing services for current students but could not enroll new students. Guiding Hands contracts with other school districts to provide educational services to students with disabilities.

A preliminary CDE investigation into Benson’s death showed school staff restrained the teen “with an amount of force which is not reasonable and necessary under the circumstances” and their actions were “harmful to the health, welfare and safety of an individual with exceptional needs.”

The CDE also cited the school for failing to comply with Benson’s individualized education program (IEP), which is a federal document. Benson was restrained for a behavior he was known to exhibit, but school staff did not follow his behavior intervention plan. According to a student witness interviewed by The Sacramento Bee, Benson was restrained for kicking a wall.

An investigation from law enforcement into Benson’s death is ongoing.

Photo via Twitter

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