Newsom signs law protecting special needs students at nonpublic California schools

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill that would protect students with special needs at nonpublic California schools, in response to the November 2018 death of a student who was restrained at his El Dorado Hills school.

Assembly Bill 1172 allows the state Department of Education to immediately suspend or revoke the certification of a nonpublic school if a student’s health or safety is being compromised. Nonpublic schools are generally private, nonreligious schools that contract with local school districts or the county office of education to serve students with special needs.

The bill, signed Oct. 2, requires nonpublic schools to report incidents involving law enforcement to the Department of Education. Additionally, local educational agencies must make monitoring visits to the school at least once a year.

Nonpublic schools serving students with “significant behavioral needs” must have a qualified behavior analyst on-site, and schools must train staff members who have contact with students in evidence-based intervention and behavior management.

The bill was authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay, and sponsored by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

“The most vulnerable students in our state deserve a safe place to learn,” Frazier said in a statement. “I am also grateful to Superintendent Tony Thurmond for his partnership on this issue. Our exceptional students benefit from expanded educational opportunities and I look forward to collaborating with the Superintendent on this subject in the future.”

The bill passed nearly a year after the death of a 13-year-old student with autism who was placed in a face-down restraint for an hour and 45 minutes by staff at Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills. Max Benson died Nov. 29 at UC Davis Medical Center, a day after he was restrained at school.

The California Department of Education revoked the school’s certification on Jan. 9 just before it completed its investigation. The school closed two weeks later, claiming it couldn’t financially survive after local school districts pulled most of their students out.

Max’s death is still under investigation by the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.

The tragedy prompted changes in how the state protects special needs students and the rights of the disabled, raising the question of whether schools can pin students down or isolate them.

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 Gov. Jerry Brown signed it months before Max died.

Seth Goldstein, lawyer for Max’s family, said he is preparing a lawsuit against Guiding Hands; against Davis Joint Unified School District and Yolo County’s Special Education Local Plan Area, which both placed Max at the school; and against the behavior management training company Handle With Care, which was used by Guiding Hands. Goldstein said the lawsuit should be filed within the next month.

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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.