Education

Under scrutiny after boy’s death, Guiding Hands School announces closure this week

Why this mom pulled her autistic son from Guiding Hands school in El Dorado Hills

Melissa Lasater pulled her son with autism from Guiding Hands school after the death of a student. She has been trained in prone restraint techniques, which she demonstrated for The Bee. She and her son tell us why they left the school.
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Melissa Lasater pulled her son with autism from Guiding Hands school after the death of a student. She has been trained in prone restraint techniques, which she demonstrated for The Bee. She and her son tell us why they left the school.

Guiding Hands School, the El Dorado Hills facility under investigation over actions surrounding the death of a 13-year-old student, has announced it will shut down permanently. The announcement was made Monday evening through a statement released by the school’s attorney, Cynthia Lawrence.

The decision would allow another non-public school to take over El Dorado Hills facility and property, according to the school’s statement. The new school would be able to hire former staffers. The move would also allow Guiding Hands’ students to return.

The school came into the spotlight and was under investigation following the Nov. 28 death of Max Benson, who died after being placed in a face-down restraint by school staff in November. The incident sparked an investigation by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office as well as the California Department of Education.

“Though GHS categorically denies the allegations asserted by the CDE in its premature Notice of Revocation, the decision to surrender our certification is in the best interest of and for the benefit of our students, their parents, and our staff,” read the school statement.

The school, which contracts with multiple local school districts to provide educational services for kids with autism and other developmental issues, was suspended Dec. 5. The CDE found the school violated multiple rules by using the restraints on Max. It found the staff’s actions were “harmful to the health, welfare or safety” of the boy, and used an emergency intervention — the prone restraint — for “predictable behavior,” according to the state’s letter to the school

Max was restrained for 1 hour and 45 minutes, according to court documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

While the CDE does not have the authority to close a school, the December suspension prevented Guiding Hands from accepting new students. On Jan. 9, the state decertified the school. More than a dozen districts began removing their students, placing them in other non-public schools.

But two days later, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi ruled to give state regulators two weeks to return with a completed investigation of Guiding Hands School. A court hearing was scheduled for Friday, but according to the school’s letter, Guiding Hands notified the CDE it will “retire its Nonpublic Schools Certification” on Jan. 17.

CDE lawyers said the El Dorado County district attorney had 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.

Some of the 119 students stayed. But many — including 26 from Sacramento City Unified — had already moved on to new schools, as district officials didn’t want students to lose spots in a their new schools due to the temporary extension.

The short stay was not long enough to save the school, according to its statement.

“Understandably, many parents and districts need a level of security which the two-week stay could not provide,” read the statement. “In the end, our loyalty is our students, parents, and devoted staff to offer them the opportunity to obtain security and stability.”

This school has been open for 25 years and is run by administrators Starranne Meyers and Cindy Keller.

Melanie Stark, who pulled her 9-year-old son out of Guiding Hands School when news of Max’s death broke, said she is concerned about what this closure means.

“Changing the top administrators and the name is not going to change the culture of restraints that’s already established there,” Stark said. “This doesn’t feel like a resolution to me at all.”

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

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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.
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