State revokes certification of special-needs school where boy was restrained and later died

Local school districts are removing students from a private El Dorado Hills school that provides services for special-needs students after the state rescinded the facility’s certification Wednesday.

State regulators confirmed Thursday they have decertified Guiding Hands School, which contracts with multiple local school districts to provide educational services for kids with autism and other developmental issues.

In November, a 13-year-old student with autism, Max Benson, became unresponsive and later died after being held in a face-down restraint by staff at Guiding Hands. The incident sparked an investigation by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the California Department of Education.

It was not immediately clear if the decertification is a result of the investigation into Benson’s death, or if the school will close. The CDE does not have the authority to close a non-public school; it can only suspend or revoke certification, according to a statement to The Bee. But local school districts can only send students to schools that are certified.

“A school district is required to ensure that any nonpublic school with whom it contracts to provide special education services to students with disabilities is certified by the state,” Folsom Cordova Unifed School District said in a statement to The Bee.

In a letter sent to Guiding Hands and obtained by The Bee through a California Public Records Act request, The California Department of Education said that it revoked certification because the school failed to notify it in writing of the circumstances surrounding Max’s death, and violated multiple state rules in how, when and why it implements physical restraints on students.

“While the CDE received notification from a local educational agency of the death of a student placed at GHS, the CDE did not receive notification ... from GHS,” read the state’s letter to the school.

The letter continued that Guiding Hands was operating the school with practices that “are harmful to the health, welfare, and safety of students with exceptional needs.”

Those harmful practices included “a physical restraint resulting in the loss of consciousness and subsequent death of a student; (i)nappropriate use of physical restraints; failure to follow behavior intervention plans; and failure to properly use behavior emergency reports.”

In a letter sent to one Guiding Hands parent and obtained by The Bee, school officials acknowledged the decertifcation and said they intended to fight it.

“We received a revocation of State Certification from the California Department of Education,” read the note from school Executive Director Cindy Keller and Principal Starranne Meyers. “We intend to appeal these subjective findings and will remain open as long as we are able. Should the Department of Education require Guiding Hands to close during this appeal process, you may be contacted by your school district for an alternative school placement.”

Elk Grove Unified School District spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton confirmed Thursday morning that her district had been notified by the state that Guiding Hand’s certification had been revoked. She said that all students must be removed from the school by Friday, including the 53 enrolled through Elk Grove. She said the district is in the process of looking for other placements.

Folsom Cordova Unified School District officials said Thursday its district had also been notified of the decertification and is removing four students.

Sacramento Unified spokesman Alex Barrios said Thursday his district is in the process of removing 26 students from Guiding Hands.

Guiding Hands was already operating under a suspended certification when Wednesday’s revocation happened. The previous suspension meant it could continue to provide services to existing students, but could not accept new students.

A Dec. 5 letter sent by the Department of Education to Keller stated that the violations in the Benson incident were found sufficient to warrant the suspension, including using an emergency intervention – the prone restraint – unnecessarily and for “predictable behavior, and using it for an unreasonable amount of time.

One student who witnessed the incident and spoke to The Bee said Benson was restrained for kicking a wall.

More than 20 parents have pulled their children out of the school since the news of Max’s death broke, according to interviews by The Bee. According to state records, in the 2017-2018 school year, Guiding Hands School had 137 students from area school districts.

Both the California Department of Education and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday their investigations are ongoing.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.