Judge puts decertification on hold for special-needs school where teen was restrained, later died

An El Dorado Hills school that lost its state certification this week has been granted a temporary stay by a Sacramento Superior Court judge, putting on hold a move by the state Department of Education to stop the facility from providing services to special-needs students from local districts.

Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi made the ruling at a Friday afternoon hearing, giving state regulators two weeks to return with a completed investigation of Guiding Hands School.

The state and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office are currently investigating Guiding Hands over its actions surrounding the death of Max Benson, a 13-year-old boy with autism who died after being placed in a face-down restraint hold by school staff in November.

The state had suspended Guiding Hands’ certification on Dec. 5 when it found the school had violated multiple rules implementing the hold on Max. The suspension prevented the school from accepting new students.

Wednesday, the state increased the suspension to a decertification, which meant local districts could no longer send students to Guiding Hands. Multiple districts immediately began pulling students from the school.

The CDE does not have authority to close a non-public school; it can only suspend or revoke certification. But local school districts can send students only to schools that are certified.

The CDE said that it revoked certification because the school failed to notify it in writing of the circumstances surrounding Max’s death and had violated multiple state rules in how, when and why it implements physical restraints on students.

In a letter to the school from the CDE, obtained by The Bee through a Public Records Act request, the state wrote Guiding Hands was operating the school with practices that “are harmful to the health, welfare, and safety of students with exceptional needs.”

A statement by the law firm representing Guiding Hands said the ruling found that the CDE “failed to complete its investigation, failed to submit an investigation report, and failed to permit a reasonable timeline” for the school to respond.

“We are pleased that the temporary stay of revocation has been granted,” read a statement from attorneys for Guiding Hands School.

The two-week extension will last until another court hearing, when the CDE will need to show cause for its decertification and provide its investigation report, said school spokeswoman Cynthia Lawrence. The CDE would also need to provide the school enough time to respond to an investigation report before it can issue a revocation.

More than 50 Guiding Hands parents, students and staff attended the hearing, according to Lawrence.

It is unclear what the extension means for more than 120 students, and the districts that worked all week to find alternative schools for them.

Alex Barrios, spokesman for the Sacramento Unified School District, said 26 of the district’s students had found alternative locations, but now that the school has received an extension to remain open, the district will remain in communication with parents to determine what happens.

“We are concerned that it’s a temporary extension,” Barrios said.

Parent Chad Hanes of Elk Grove welcomed Friday’s news, calling it an opportunity to keep pushing toward regaining certification.

Hanes’ 18-year-old daughter, Bailey, has been at Guiding Hands School for six years. She is of 53 students that the Elk Grove Unified School District was transferring, but Hanes said he never heard from the district.

“The decertification felt like a total punch in the face,” he said.

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