Proposed CA state bill aims to protect special needs students after El Dorado Hills death

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 state bill aimed at protecting special needs students at nonpublic schools was introduced Monday in response to the November 2018 death of a student who was restrained at his El Dorado Hills school.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay, authored AB 1172 to expand local and state oversight of all nonpublic schools and how they operate.

The Guiding Hands school is still under investigation following the death of a 13-year-old student with autism. Max Benson died after being placed in a face-down restraint for one hour and 45 minutes by school staff.

The California Department of Education revoked the school’s certification just before it completed its investigation. The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating and the school closed in January, claiming it couldn’t financially survive after local school districts pulled most of their students out.

Nonpublic schools, like Guiding Hands, are generally private, nonreligious schools that contract with local school districts or the county office of education to serve students with special needs.

Frazier’s bill would:

Amend the California Education Code and allow the state to immediately suspend or revoke a nonpublic school’s certification if the state finds that a student’s health or safety has been compromised.

Require nonpublic schools to report any incident involving law enforcement or child protective services to the state and its local educational agencies.

Require local educational agencies to visit the school at least once a year, and mandate that a qualified behavior analyst be on-site.

Require administrators to obtain a valid educational credential.

The state flagged Guiding Hands School for several violations, including failing to notify officials in writing of the circumstances surrounding Max’s death, and violating multiple state rules in how, when and why it implements physical restraints on students. Guiding Hands operated the school with practices that “are harmful to the health, welfare, and safety of students with exceptional needs,” according to a letter to the school.

“These schools serve the most vulnerable members of our society,” read a press release from Frazier, chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. “An investigation revealed this school routinely employed practices and procedures that were incorrect and exposed students to severe harm. AB 1172 will help ensure that local education authorities and the state are able to more closely monitor these nonpublic schools and enable early intervention if problems develop.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond sponsored the bill, calling for a need for greater clarity and additional statutory requirements in nonpublic schools.

“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,” Thurmond said in a statement.

This bill isn’t the first piece of legislation focused on special needs students and disability rights in recent months.

A new law went into effect at the start of 2019 that prohibits restraining and secluding students as discipline, or for convenience or retaliation. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber , D-San Diego, authored the bill and former Gov. Jerry Brown signed it months before Max died.

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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.