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The California Department of Education has suspended the certification of a private El Dorado Hills school where an autistic teen stopped breathing last week after being restrained by staff.
The 13-year-old student subsequently died.
The CDE announced Thursday evening that it was investigating the circumstances around the fatal incident on Nov. 28 at Guiding Hands School on Windplay Drive.
El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson also confirmed his office is investigating the death but declined further comment.
A source familiar with the incident said a teacher at Guiding Hands School is under investigation after a ‘prone restraint’ was used to subdue the child for roughly an hour.
A prone restraint involves immobilizing a student in a face down position.
El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Anthony Prencipe said the student who died was severely autistic and allegedly became violent, prompting school staff to put him in a restraint hold. Principe said staff began CPR and called for medical assistance after the boy became unresponsive.
The student was transferred to Mercy Hospital of Folsom, and later transferred to UC Davis Medical Center where he died, Principe said. The sheriff’s office was not notified of the death until Nov. 30, but it is unclear what day the student died.
Principe said that in the initial emergency call, which both deputies and medical personnel responded to, the student was described as 6 feet tall and weighing 280 pounds. Authorities have not identified the student.
Bill Ainsworth, spokesman for the California Department of Education, said, “The suspension means the school will not be able to accept additional students. In the meantime, the department is continuing its investigation to see if further action is necessary.”
Principe, the sheriff’s spokesman, said the incident is not currently being examined as a criminal investigation.
“We are going to look at the totality of the circumstances, and make a decision based on what’s there,” Principe said.
Thursday afternoon, the school issued a written statement through public relations firm Runyon Saltzman.
“It is with heavy hearts that we share the very difficult news that a beloved member of our school community has passed away. Out of respect for the family, and the ongoing investigation, we are unable to share full details at this time,” the statement read in part.
School principal Staranne Meyers, also listed in state records as a corporate officer of Guiding Hands, did not return calls for comment.
In 2018, Principe said the department has been called to respond to incidents at Guiding Hands School a total of 27 times. He said the calls have been for a variety of reasons, from ringing alarms to mental health related concerns.
The K-12 school provides special education and related services to children with special needs, according to its website. State records show the school had 137 students and 16 full-time staff as of the 2017-2018 school year.
Guiding Hands School has been sued before for restraining a student. In 2002 and 2003, the school staff forcibly restrained another teenage student, Tracee Lamerson, multiple times, according to court records.
In 2004, Lamerson’s mother, Deborah Lamerson, sued Guiding Hands, and Sacramento City Unified School District, which contracted with the school at the time to provide services for special needs students. SCUSD spokesman Alex Barrios said the district no longer has a relationship with Guiding Hands.
In a phone interview Thursday with The Bee, Deborah and Tracee Lamerson said that in one instance, Tracee had broken her arm in an accident while riding the bus to the school from her home in Rancho Cordova. The younger Lamerson has Williams Syndrome, which caused developmental delays.
When she arrived at Guiding Hands, she repeatedly asked to call her mother, but staff would not allow her, Deborah Lamerson said. She said school staff did not provide medical care but placed her daughter in a physical restraint hold as she became agitated.
Tracee Lamerson, now 29, was eventually placed in a four point restraint, with four staff members holding her down, according to court records. While being held down, Tracee Lamerson, who was around 13 at the time, vomited. Staff personnel made her clean it up, according to court records.
“I was so afraid to go back,” Tracee Lamerson said Thursday. “I don’t like that they are still open and that they can restrain anyone.”
The attorney for the Lamerson family in the case, Andrea Tytell, said the school became a private institution around that time. Articles of incorporation for Guiding Hands School were filed with the state in 2002.
Candis Bowles, a lawyer with advocacy group Disability Rights California, said while prone restraints are legal in certain circumstances in California, the technique can be risky if it is applied incorrectly.
“(Restraints) can cause trauma and death, and more importantly there are better ways to respond to behavior, particularly disability behavior,” Bowles said. “It’s not inconsistent that they used an approved restraint technique and this happened, but it might not have been implemented correctly, and obviously it wasn’t because he died,” she said.
Prone restraint is banned for use in schools in several other states.
A 2002 investigation by Disability Rights California into the use of restraint holds in schools and other institutions found that “prone restraint,” is a “hazardous and potentially lethal restraint position” and, even when done correctly, puts people at risk of asphyxia. The report cautioned against its use.
“Simply restraining an individual prone restricts the ability to breath, thereby lessening the supply of oxygen to meet the body’s demands” the report said.
In one case study Disability Rights examined, a 16-year-old girl who weighed 293 pounds was put in a prone restraint after she argued with another student and struggled with staff. After 30 minutes of being restrained face-down, the girl stopped breathing.
An autopsy report later showed the cause of death to be lack of oxygen to the brain due to asphyxia caused by the position of her restraint, the report said.
This year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2657 which prohibits educators from using “dangerous restraint practices” and locking students in seclusion. The new law does not entirely put an end to the use of prone restraint, but prohibits it in circumstances where a student is known to have heart disease or a respiratory condition like asthma that restricts breathing.