Autism school where teen died broke state rules

The Sacramento Bee - - Front Page - BY SAWSAN MORRAR AND PHILLIP REESE smor­[email protected]

A pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion has found the El Do­rado Hills pri­vate school where a child with autism died last week vi­o­lated sev­eral state reg­u­la­tions when they put the teen in a face-down re­straint po­si­tion for an ex­tended pe­riod.

The boy, iden­ti­fied by the Sacra­mento County Coro­ner’s Of­fice as Max Ben­son, 13, be­came un­re­spon­sive while in the re­straint and died a day later at UC Davis Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

The in­ci­dent took place Nov. 28 at Guid­ing Hands School on Wind­play Drive, ac­cord­ing to the El Do­rado County Sher­iff’s Of­fice. Ben­son be­came un­re­spon­sive while be­ing held in a ‘prone re­straint’ for nearly an hour, ac­cord­ing to a source fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In a let­ter sent to the school’s site ad­min­is­tra­tor, Cindy Keller, on Dec. 5 from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and re­leased to The Sacra­mento Bee through a Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Records Act re­quest, state reg­u­la­tors found “suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence” that the fa­cil­ity had vi­o­lated mul­ti­ple state rules gov­ern­ing how and when phys­i­cal re­straints can be used on stu­dents.

Those vi­o­la­tions in­cluded us­ing an emer­gency in­ter­ven­tion – the prone re­straint – for “pre­dictable be­hav­ior,” us­ing

an emer­gency in­ter­ven­tion as a sub­sti­tute for the stu­dent’s per­son­ally-de­signed be­hav­ior in­ter­ven­tion plan and us­ing the re­straint for longer than nec­es­sary.

The state also found in ap­ply­ing the re­straint, school staff used “an amount of force which is not rea­son­able and nec­es­sary un­der the cir­cum­stances.”

Cur­rent ev­i­dence sup­ports a find­ing that the staff’s ac­tions were harm­ful to the health, wel­fare or safety of the stu­dent, the in­spec­tion stated.

The state sus­pended the pri­vate fa­cil­ity’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as a re­sult of Ben­son’s death, mean­ing it can­not ac­cept new stu­dents. The school re­mains open, how­ever.

Ben­son’s mother, Sta­cia Lan­g­ley, de­clined through a fam­ily friend to com­ment, but re­ferred ques­tions to at­tor­ney Seth Gold­stein.

“When­ever a dis­ci­plinary mat­ter or an ac­tion is taken to cor­rect be­hav­ior, it has to be rea­son­able un­der the cir­cum­stances,” Gold­stein said. “If it’s un­rea­son­able or un­war­ranted, it’s an of­fense.”

Gold­stein said con­trary to ini­tial re­ports, Ben­son was 5-foot-4 and weighed at most 230 pounds. The sher­iff’s of­fice said Thurs­day an emer­gency call placed by the school dur­ing the in­ci­dent de­scribed Ben­son as 6 feet and 280 pounds.

“He was not an un­man­age­able child in any sense of that term in terms of that size,” Gold­stein said.

Ben­son was from Davis and had only been at­tend­ing the school for a few months, Gold­stein said.

At­tor­ney Ar­lene May­er­son at ad­vo­cacy group Dis­abil­ity Rights Ed­u­ca­tion and De­fense Fund in Berke­ley called the state find­ings “ex­tremely se­ri­ous.”

“Schools us­ing re­straints should be closely mon­i­tored,” May­er­son said. “Many chil­dren in the state are at risk of bod­ily harm by these prac­tices. They are used far too widely.”

Cher­i­lyn Caler of Jack­son re­moved her son from Guid­ing Hands Thurs­day af­ter learn­ing that Ben­son died.

In an in­ter­view Fri­day with The Bee, Caler said her 13-year-old son wit­nessed the in­ci­dent that re­sulted in Ben­son’s death.

Caler said her son is in Ben­son’s class and said he wit­nessed the teacher and teacher’s aid phys­i­cally re­strain Ben­son. Her son, who is on the autism spec­trum, told her that Ben­son was re­strained for a pe­riod he de­scribed as last­ing for hours.

Ac­cord­ing to the ac­count Calder re­ceived from her son, Ben­son was dis­ci­plined for kick­ing a wall. A se­cond par­ent of a


Guid­ing Hands stu­dent, who asked not be iden­ti­fied, said her child also re­ported Ben­son was dis­ci­plined for kick­ing a wall.

Caler said her son told her af­ter Ben­son stopped mov­ing, the staff told Ben­son to stop pre­tend­ing he was sleep­ing. Af­ter about thirty min­utes of Ben­son not mov­ing, the class­mate said staff re­al­ized Ben­son was un­re­spon­sive and called for med­i­cal as­sis­tance.

Caler said her son has been put in a re­straint be­fore at Guid­ing Hands, and the boy has told her stu­dents some­times pre­tend to be asleep so staff would re­lease them.

Caler pre­vi­ously com­plained to the school about the use of re­straints, be­cause her son re­ceived a rug burn on the left side of his face once af­ter be­ing put in one.

Elk Grove res­i­dent Melanie Stark, who pulled her 9-year-old son from the school Thurs­day, said she had a three-hour meet­ing with Guid­ing Hands school ad­min­is­tra­tion and an Elk Grove Uni­fied rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Wed­nes­day to dis­cuss how the school han­dles her child’s be­hav­ior. She has a pend­ing com­plaint with the DOE about the use of re­straints at the school, she said.

The DOE was not im­me­di­ately able to pro­vide all com­plaints against the school, though The Bee has filed a Pub­lic Records Act re­quest for them.

Stark said she was con­cerned that her son was re­strained on his first day at the school in Septem­ber, and dis­agreed with the school’s method and def­i­ni­tion of re­straint.

Ac­cord­ing to Stark, a fe­male teacher’s aid of­ten wrapped her arms and legs around her son so he couldn’t get up from his desk. Stark said the school de­fined the method as a phys­i­cal prompt, where a teacher uses phys­i­cal con­tact to guide a learner through an ac­tiv­ity.

“That was too ag­gres­sive, and it was hap­pen­ing about four times a week,” Stark said.

Josh Green­field, 23, was a stu­dent at Guid­ing Hands un­til 2013. He said he was re­strained twice dur­ing his time at Guid­ing Hands and was fright­ened by the ex­pe­ri­ences. Green­field said he thought the re­straints were ex­ces­sive. Once, he said he was placed in a prone re­straint be­cause he ig­nored a teacher call­ing his name in a hall­way.

Re­becca St. Clair of Fol­som, an­other par­ent with a child at Guid­ing Hands, said af­ter hear­ing that Ben­son was re­strained, she re­called an in­ci­dent where her son was put in a prone re­straint two years ago. She said staff placed him in­side a thick gym mat and mul­ti­ple staff put their weight onto the mat to keep the boy still. She said she was upset by the in­ci­dent.

“He was on edge and it was dig­ging into his bone,” St. Clair said of her son. “He was cry­ing from the pain, but be­cause he was able to calm down he was re­leased.”

It wasn’t un­til St. Clair per­son­ally wit­nessed a child be­ing rolled into a gym mat and re­strained the week be­fore Ben­son’s death that she said she re­al­ized how “alarm­ing and un­set­tling” it is, she said.

“I tried to as­sure my­self that this was based on trust. I re­ally trusted the teach­ers,” St. Clair said. “That trust has been bro­ken. I thought they were so care­ful. I feel so wrong about that now.”

Prone re­straints are banned for use in schools in sev­eral states and are con­tro­ver­sial.

Ad­vo­cacy group Dis­abil­ity Rights Cal­i­for­nia de­ter­mined that prone re­straints are haz­ardous and po­ten­tially lethal in a re­cent re­port that in­cludes fa­tal case stud­ies. In its re­port, it rec­om­mends that re­straint and con­tain­ment be “viewed as the re­sult of a treat­ment fail­ure, not a treat­ment in­ter­ven­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, prone con­tain­ment should never be used for peo­ple at risk for po­si­tional as­phyx­i­a­tion, in­clud­ing those with obe­sity and those in an ag­i­tated, ex­cited state.

In 2016, the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion found school re­straint and seclu­sion to be dis­crim­i­na­tory in an Oak­land case where a boy with autism was re­strained 92 times over a pe­riod of 11 months. Ac­cord­ing to a Dis­abil­ity Rights Cal­i­for­nia press re­lease, the 9-year-old stu­dent at Anova Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion in Con­cord was held face down by two to three adults for up to an hour and a half at a time. Since then, Oak­land Uni­fied School District stopped re­strain­ing stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

Dis­tricts around the re­gion con­tract with Guid­ing Hands to pro­vide spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion and re­lated ser­vices to chil­dren with spe­cial needs, ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

The num­ber of stu­dents en­rolled in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams for autis­tic stu­dents has sky­rock­eted over the last decade, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. There were about 8,300 autis­tic stu­dents in pub­lic spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams in the Sacra­mento re­gion dur­ing the 2017-18 school year. That’s roughly triple the num­ber en­rolled in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams in the 2008-09 school year.

Put an­other way, about one in 45 of the re­gion’s pub­lic school stu­dents were en­rolled in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams for autis­tic chil­dren last school year, com­pared to one in 135 a decade ago.

Davis Joint Uni­fied, where Ben­son was en­rolled, said Ben­son was its only stu­dent at­tend­ing Guid­ing Hands.

“No other district stu­dents cur­rently at­tend or have ever at­tended this school, and we will not be plac­ing stu­dents there in the fu­ture,” the district said in a state­ment to The Bee.

Stark said she called Elk Grove Uni­fied to re­move her son from the school, and was told the district was al­ready work­ing on the pa­per­work.

It is un­clear how many stu­dents from Elk Grove Uni­fied at­tend Guid­ing Hands. The district did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Fol­som Cor­dova Uni­fied School District con­firmed seven of its stu­dents at­tend Guid­ing Hands. District spokesper­son Daniel Thig­pen con­firmed that its spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion and ad­min­is­tra­tion staff vis­ited the school on Thurs­day af­ter learn­ing of Ben­son’s death.

Fol­som Cor­dova Uni­fied of­fi­cials have been in con­tact with district’s fam­i­lies that have chil­dren at Guid­ing Hands, and are meet­ing with them to dis­cuss al­ter­na­tive schools, Thig­pen said. Thig­pen said the district is not mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions about whether to keep or re­move chil­dren from Guid­ing Hands.

“This is a con­ver­sa­tion that any par­ent would ex­pect in this sit­u­a­tion,” Thig­pen said. “We owe it to our par­ents to open up the di­alogue and ex­plore other op­tions.”

Sacra­mento City Uni­fied spokesman Alex Bar­rios said that the district does have a con­tract with Guid­ing Hands, and said early Fri­day af­ter­noon the district was be­gin­ning the process of reach­ing out to fam­i­lies of the 29 stu­dents in SCUSD’s re­gion who are en­rolled at Guid­ing Hands.

St. Clair, Caler and Stark said they were not in­formed of Ben­son’s death by the school prior to me­dia re­ports.

“It was pretty ob­vi­ous that it was be­com­ing pub­lic,” St. Clair said. “They were scram­bling.”

SAWSAN MORRAR smor­[email protected]

An autis­tic teen died at Guid­ing Hands School in El Do­rado Hills af­ter be­ing placed in a re­straint hold, au­thor­i­ties said.

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