Education

A new school opens at El Dorado Hills site where boy was restrained and later died

Replacing Guiding Hands: ‘We are a new company, a new philosophy, a new school’

Bill Tollestrup of Point Quest Education for special education students in El Dorado Hills, the former site of Guiding Hands School where a 13-year-old boy was put in a prone restraint and later died, shares the new company's philosophies.
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Bill Tollestrup of Point Quest Education for special education students in El Dorado Hills, the former site of Guiding Hands School where a 13-year-old boy was put in a prone restraint and later died, shares the new company's philosophies.

A new school for students with disabilities has opened at an El Dorado Hills campus with a troubled past.

Point Quest Education in mid-March took over the site formerly known as Guiding Hands School, where last November Max Benson, a 13-year-old boy with autism, was put in a face-down prone restraint and later died.

The new school, Point Quest’s fourth campus in the greater Sacramento area, is growing quickly. It serves some the region’s most vulnerable children with cognitive, behavioral and emotional needs.

Nearly half of the more than 25 students at the El Dorado Hills site attended Guiding Hands.

And five of the current Point Quest staff are former Guiding Hands employees -- “cherry picked, cream of the crop,” according to interim principal Bill Tollestrup.

Guiding Hands closed in January after a legal battle when a judge upheld the state’s revocation of its certification over multiple violations. The school said it closed because it couldn’t financially survive after local districts pulled most of its 120 students out.

Max’s death prompted investigations by the California Department of Education and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. El Dorado County officials are still investigating the death.

Some of the returning students ask questions about the incident that resulted in Max’s death, Tollestrup said. He responds by assuring them and their parents that the new school does not restrain students in that way.

Point Quest carefully retrained and re-cultured the returning teachers in how to deal with students, Tollestrup said.

“I told them, you need to get a good case of historical amnesia. We are no longer the culture you worked with,” Tollestrup said. “We are a new company, a new philosophy, a new school. And we really emphasize positive behavior and intervention.”

Tollestrup was special education director at Elk Grove Unified School District for 20 years. He retired last year, but Point Quest asked him to run its new campus through the end of this school year.

The Sacramento region has a burgeoning need for special education programs, and they can be hard to find, especially in rural areas.

About 31,000 students are enrolled in special education classrooms across Sacramento County’s school districts and non-public schools, and 20,000 students in El Dorado County, where the new Point Quest school is located.

Student from as far away as Yolo and Calaveras counties attend Point Quest.

“There are lots of rural districts in the foothills, some of them I never knew existed until I came here,” Tollestrup said. “They don’t have programs for unique kids.”

Tollestrup said the most notable difference between Guiding Hands and Point Quest schools is how and when they restrain students. Point Quest’s El Dorado Hills campus uses the program Crisis Prevention Institute, which allows only mild restraints in very limited and non-threatening strategies, and does not use prone restraints.

More than 60 percent of educators reported that Crisis Prevention Institute helped their schools reduce the use of restraints by half or entirely, according to the program’s website.

However, like many public and nonpublic schools throughout the state, Point Quest campuses have had their share of complaints. In 2016 and 2017, a teacher at the Stockton campus allegedly threw a student against the wall, and students at the Lodi campus were left at a park and in a van for seven hours, according to investigations by the state. The staff members involved at both locations were prohibited from having contact with students at any nonpublic schools after the incidents.

Tollestrup brought in certified trainers to his El Dorado Hills campus, who certify teachers annually on how to de-escalate behavioral outbursts and assist students who are struggling to comply. About 76 percent of students physically or mechanically restrained at California schools in 2015-16 were students with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“I have never been an advocate for drastic restraints on kids, because they’re kids,” Tollestrup said. “I understand maintaining safety, but I also understand that there are ways to maintain safety without doing some type of drastic prone restraint like you’re dealing with a criminal or something.”

Max was restrained only a few feet from the main office. That proximity is unsettling for Tollestrup, so he put even more policies in place to ensure student safety.

While teachers are trained at the campus, they are not the ones handling students’ most aggressive behaviors. Even with repeated training, it’s difficult to remember intervention techniques in a moment of crisis, Tollestrup said.

Under the new model, the administration and trained behaviorists intervene in more complex situations.

“A teacher’s primary job is to teach, so we don’t expect them to handle the students’ behavior,” he said.

While Guiding Hands used the crisis prevention program Handle With Care, the program itself did not encourage prolonged restraints, like those allegedly used on Max. Max was held facedown for an hour and 45 minutes, and urinated on himself after he was denied a bathroom break, according to state documents. It’s not clear when he became unresponsive during that time.

At the start of his new job, Tollestrup provided two-way radios and mandated that doors remain wide open until school officials install doors with windows in the near future so that administrators and behaviorists can provide support when needed.

Like many schools, Point Quest doesn’t have security cameras throughout the halls and classrooms. Schools are concerned about confidentiality and want to help students prepare for transitioning back to public schools and the world at large — not feel like they are under surveillance, Tollestrup said.

Transitioning out should be the goal of a non-public school, he said.

“Our goal is to understand what works with a child and start to work with their district to transition them back,” he said. “Is this the least restrictive environment? We want to back off the intensity and get children into a more normalized situation.”

The owners of Guiding Hands, Cindy Keller and Starranne Meyers, are no longer associated with the campus. They still own an educational program in the El Dorado County town of Latrobe that their son Quynn Meyers-Keller manages.

4 Directions Farm is a vocational arts program that teaches job skills to teens and young adults with disabilities.

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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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