A small group of former students, advocates and parents gathered in front of the California Department of Education Monday to demand the closure of a school where a teen with autism stopped breathing and later died after being restrained by staff.
Nearly a dozen protestors said they were demanding the immediate closure of Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills. Those gathered also said they believed state regulators didn’t do enough to prevent the death of Max Benson, 13, who died Nov. 29, a day after school staff put him in a face-down restraint for an extended period of time.
The California Department of Education found “sufficient evidence” in a preliminary inspection of Guiding Hands that the facility had violated multiple state rules governing how and when physical restraints can be used on students, according to a letter sent to the school obtained The Sacramento Bee through a California Public Records Act request.
The DOE also ruled that unnecessary force had been used when implementing the restraint on Benson. Monday, DOE spokeswoman Cynthia Butler said it was conducting a further investigation.
Guiding Hands issued a statement last week that said in part, “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.”
Protestors said that the actions by the school staff are not isolated incidents, and physical restraints are used often.
“Archaic methods of behavior intervention, excessive force and prolonged physical restraint all contributed to, if not caused, the death of this young boy,” said Jordan Lindsey, executive director of The Arc California, an organization which serves people with disabilities.
Katie Kaufman, 20, a former Guiding Hands student who attended the school for two years until she left in 2012, attended Monday’s rally. Kaufman said she was put in a face-down prone restraint multiple times, and was once body slammed onto a cement floor resulting in a bloodied chin.
Kaufman said that organizers decided to protest in front of the Department of Education because they believe state regulators should provide more oversight of the school.
“This school should have been shut down years ago,” Kaufman said. “They should have listened, and not have waited until someone died. It was a matter of time.”
Melissa Lasater, one of the organizers of the protest, pulled her son out of Guiding Hands on Friday, after learning of Benson’s death through media reports. On Thursday, before removing her 13-year-old, she had revoked the school’s permission to restrain him, she said. Lasater said her son had been restrained multiple times since starting at Guiding Hands.
“He was coming home with bruises and a rug burns on his forehead,” Lasater said. Lasater said her school district, Twin Rivers Unified, contacted her to discuss a transfer before she made the request for one.