Court upholds decertification of El Dorado Hills school as state concludes investigation

What supporters of Max Benson’s family said after Guiding Hands decertification hearing

Supporters of Max Benson's family talk after Guiding Hands School’s decertification was upheld by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
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Supporters of Max Benson's family talk after Guiding Hands School’s decertification was upheld by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.

A judge on Friday upheld the decertification of Guiding Hands School, after the El Dorado Hills special-needs campus dropped its challenge to the state Education Department’s effort to halt attendance by public school students.

The private school has been under investigation by state and El Dorado County officials over actions surrounding the death of a 13-year-old student with autism. Max Benson was restrained face-down by school staff for one hour and 45 minutes in November, and died a day later at UC Davis Medical Center.

The school had already announced it would be closing its doors Friday, claiming it couldn’t financially survive after local school districts pulled most of their students out.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced Friday that the California Education Department’s investigation of Guiding Hands was complete.

“Revoking a school’s certification is an action that the CDE takes very seriously, and it is not done without careful consideration and justification,” Thurmond said in a statement.

“Guiding Hands’ refusal to take responsibility for its actions is disheartening,” Thurmond said. “It would be an injustice to the families we serve if we did not do everything within our authority to ensure that students are placed in an environment where their safety is the number one priority of those who have been entrusted with their care.”

The hearing Friday in Sacramento Superior Court was the latest in a back-and-forth between the California Department of Education and the school over its certification. The state suspended the school’s certification in December, and revoked it a month later. But two days after that, Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi put a two-week stay on the revocation while state regulators continued to investigate.

Among the findings, “The CDE is concerned that the violations related to restraints and emergency interventions are ongoing and systemic,” said the state’s education administrator, Tina Tranzor, in court documents.

Guiding Hands on Jan. 17 notified the state that it would retire its nonpublic schools certification and close the school.

After Friday’s hearing, the decertification stands and Guiding Hands can no longer accept public school students, according to the state.

“I think the outcome is appropriate,” said Max’s family lawyer Seth Goldstein after the Friday hearing. “It speaks well of the Department of Education to protect kids. … It’s too bad that didn’t happen a long time ago.”

A handful of Max’s supporters attended the hearing wearing black T-shirts with a picture of the boy’s face. The shirt read, “Never again.”

“There has to be a whole systemic change in the way we treat children with autism,” said Jennifer Abbanat, a mother of a child with special needs, and Max’s family friend. “We need change from the top all the way down to the local level. My son could have been Max.”

In the days leading to the court hearing, Sueyoshi received declarations from the school and the Education Department. The state relayed evidence that school staff members routinely engaged in restraints in ways that were inconsistent with state law, according to court documents.

Among the findings, Max told his teacher he was going to throw up and that he had to urinate, but his request to use the restroom was denied, according to a new court declaration by the state’s education program consultant John Liddell. Max consequently urinated on himself as the face-down restraint continued for over an hour and a half, according to documents.

Liddell conducted the three ongoing state investigations against the school.

For each of the three investigations, the state notified the school of its concerns, and conducted interviews and requested records, according to Liddell’s account.

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.

The incident is still being investigated by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and the Education Department.

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexander said that the sheriff’s investigation likely will close in two weeks.

A statement by Guiding Hands said another non-public school could take over the facility. The statement said the new school would be able to hire former staffers and allow Guiding Hands’ students to return.

Thurmond’s statement Friday said any non-public school opening at the former Guiding Hands site will have to be certified by the Department of Education.

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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.