More than 30 people attended a vigil Saturday night for Max Benson, who became unresponsive and died after being put in a prone restraint at an El Dorado Hills school.
Benson, 13, was a student with autism at Guiding Hands School. The incident is under investigation, and the California Department of Education found in a preliminary investigation that the school violated multiple state rules in placing Benson in a prone restraint for an extended period of time. Benson was restrained on Nov. 28 and died a day later.
The vigil, which took place outside of the school, brought together friends of the family, parents of former students and community members. Max was remembered as a loving and compassionate friend.
Attendees lit candles, shared memories of the teen, wrote cards to his family and traded stories of their own children’s experiences with restraints at the school.
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Katie Jackson, who works in special education and was one of Benson’s first teachers, organized the vigil after community members expressed a need to grieve and gather in memory of Benson.
“Max was very empathetic,” Jackson said. “Once he loved you, he was going to love you for life.”
Friends remembered Max as being great with animals, always talking about dogs and helping his family raise foster dogs.
“There is so much more to him than what you see passing by,” Jackson said. “He taught me that sometimes you can love your friends so much that it hurts.”
Jackson and other friends who knew Max said they were upset about earlier reports stating Max was 6 feet tall and over 280 pounds. The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said it received an emergency call placed by the school describing Max that way. The family lawyer, Seth Goldstein, said Max was 5-foot-4 and weighed closer to 230 pounds.
Goldstein, who attended the vigil on behalf of Max’s family, said he was working to end the use of all restraints in schools. He said if schools don’t comply, he would work to close them.
Sadie Ferguson, whose son attended Guiding Hands School until she learned of Max’s death, said the school never reported their use of restraints to her. Her 15-year-old son was restrained three times, and his teacher did not mention the incidents in emails regarding his behavior. Ferguson said on Back to School Night her son’s teacher commented on how tall her son was.
“She said to me, ‘You know, if he ever needs to be restrained, that’s a four-man take down,’ ” Ferguson said. “She meant it as a flip comment. And it’s not. That’s a tackle.”
Krista Spong, who attended the vigil, has a 9-year-old with autism. Spong’s son doesn’t attend Guiding Hands School, but Spong said she is concerned her son’s school may one day suggest a transfer.
“Our community is just devastated by this,” Spong said. “I can’t imagine if something like that happened to our son. And it terrifies me, because I can see something like that happening.”
Restraints are permitted in California public schools and nonpublic schools, but are overwhelmingly used on students with special needs, according to Disability Rights of California, an advocacy group.
“There is no world in which an appropriate consequence is a prone restraint,” Jackson said. “How did we get to the point where this is OK?”
Jackson said she recently learned that Max was having a rough day, and she told his mother she was going to write Max a letter.
“I wanted to remind him how loved he is,” Jackson said. “He was always expressive to the people he loved. He needed to know how funny, smart and important he was.”
Max died before Jackson was able to write him that letter.
“I wanted to say all the things you shouldn’t wait say before someone passes away,” Jackson said. “This came out of nowhere. I go from being sick about it to being really angry. He was not a danger.”
This article was updated Dec. 16 to clarify results of the DOE preliminary investigation.