School where boy with autism was restrained, later died has been investigated by state multiple times

The El Dorado Hills private school where a boy with autism died after being held face-down by staff for nearly two hours has been investigated before by the state for its use of physical restraints, according to court documents and state records.

Guiding Hands School is currently the subject of three ongoing investigations by the state Department of Education, according to documents filed by the agency with Sacramento Superior Court on Jan. 11.

Weeks before the fatal incident that preceded the death of 13-year-old Max Benson, who allegedly lost consciousness after being held in a face-down position by staff, the CDE was notified by the parent of another student about alleged misuse of physical restraints on her son. In that instance, the CDE investigated and notified the student’s home school district, Elk Grove Unified, that it failed to “ensure emergency interventions were only used to control unpredictable, spontaneous behaviors.” The investigation found physical interventions were used on the boy, whose name was redacted from released records, 61 times in a nearly two-month period.

In January 2018, another CDE investigation of Guiding Hands found the school failed to provide mandated counseling time to a student, and employed a teacher who was not credentialed to teach special education during the 2016-2017 school year. The school’s certification was put on “conditional” status, according to a CDE report mailed to Guiding Hands on Nov. 15.

The ongoing investigations were revealed in a brief written by state lawyers as they fought to keep in place a revocation of Guiding Hands certification issued Jan. 11, a move intended by the state to remove all public school students from the facility. Guiding Hands requested — and received — a temporary restraining order from Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi allowing it to continue taking public school students for two weeks while the CDE completes its investigation into Max’s death.

“These violations are not limited to one student, one incident, or one staff member,” CDE lawyers said in court documents arguing to keep the decertification in place.

CDE lawyers said the El Dorado County district attorney had also provided the agency with additional information and evidence that gave the CDE “great concern for the welfare of the public school students with disabilities who are currently placed at Guiding Hands School,” according to court documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office did not return a call for comment.

The CDE suspended Guiding Hands’ certification on Dec. 5, about a week after Max was held by staff in the restraint for an hour and forty-five minutes, according to court documents. An ambulance was called after staff discovered the boy was unresponsive and he died a day later at UC Davis Medical Center. The El Dorado County Coroner has not released an autopsy report, and an investigation by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office remains ongoing, according to court documents.

Seth Goldstein, lawyer for Max Benson’s family, called the length of Max’s restraint “unfathomable.”

“Any delay in preventing the school to continue its practice places those children still in their care at risk,” said Goldstein.

The CDE said in its December suspension letter, obtained by The Bee through a Public Records Act request, that the use of the hold violated multiple state regulations. The suspension prohibited Guiding Hands from accepting new students but allowed it to continue to serve existing students. The January revocation of its certification meant that local school districts could no longer send public school students to the facility.

Guiding Hands administrator Cindy Keller said in court papers that the revocation could force the school to close “seemingly overnight,” and that it provided an essential service to students.

The school’s lawyer argued that disrupting the public education of students can cause “irreparable harm to students and parents,” and the 70 school employees will financially suffer if they abruptly lose their jobs.

Nine declarations of support for the school were filed from the principal, administrator, parents, bus drivers and teachers, according to court documents. Some parents said they had no other viable options for their children, some of them who were over 18 years old age. Teachers and drivers said they would no longer receive benefits, and will not be able to pay their mortgages.

Guiding Hands contracts with multiple local districts to provide services for special needs children, including those with autism. Keller said in court filings that the facility has 117 public school students, and would be forced to lay off its staff and perhaps declare bankruptcy if the state’s decertification was not delayed. Guiding Hands has only two students not placed by a public school district, according to court documents.

The school receives about $33,000 to $39,000 annually for each of its public school students that are placed by districts at the facility, according to the numbers provided by three school districts.

Elk Grove Unified School District sent more than 50 students to the school and paid it a total of $1.8 million in the 2017-2018 school year. In the same school year, Sacramento City Unified School District paid more than $1 million to Guiding Hands for more than 20 students, and Black Oak Mine Unified School District paid $140,000 for four students.

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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.