Last week a 13-year-old autistic boy died after being forcibly restrained by staff at his school. Following his death, the California Department of Education opened an investigation into his death. Through the investigation, the DOE found that the school violated several state regulations when they put the child in a face-down “prone restraint” for more than an hour. In addition to the violations found by the DOE, parents of students at the school say Guiding Hands has a history of using the restraints for non-emergency purposes.
Local news outlet The Sacramento Bee reported yesterday the details about the investigation conducted by the California Department of Education into the death of the victim.
According to the report, the victim, Max Benson, became unresponsive at Guiding Hands School on November 29th. Benson died the following day at UC Davis Medical Center from the injuries sustained from the incident.
Despite extensive media coverage that Benson was more than 6 feet tall and 280 pounds, the attorney for the Benson family disputes that fact. Attorney Seth Goldstein told the Sacramento Bee that Max was only 5’4 and weighed at most 230 pounds.
In the report by the California Department of Education, obtained by the Sacramento Bee, found that the school violated numerous state regulations regarding use of the restraint in schools. The primary violation found was the school used the restraint to manage “predictable behavior” of Benson.
California guidelines only allow for the use of the restraint in emergencies. However, the school used the restraint on Benson to manage his typical behavior.
Benson family attorney said that Max did have challenging behavior. However, the school failed to follow the personally-designed behavior intervention plan.
Instead, the school used an emergency restraint on a child for typical behavior. In addition to the misuse of the restraint, the Department of Education said the school held Max in the restraint for longer than authorized.
Based on the department’s findings in the investigation, they told the school in a letter that the school staff used, “an amount of force which is not reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.”
Seth Goldstein insisted that Max’s size did not warrant the amount of force the staff used. Additionally, he said that the use of force was unreasonable to correct the behavior that Max exhibited at the time.
Max’s behavior has remained a question in broader reporting. The school and police say that Max acted violently. According to the school, the restraint was required to contain and stop the violent behavior.
However, students that witnessed the event tell a very different story. The Sacramento Bee interviewed several parents, whose children were in the class at the time, and their account is vastly different than the school’s story.
Parent, Cherilyn Caler, told the paper she removed her son from Guiding Hands on Thursday because of the incident. She said her son watched staff restrain Max.
According to Caler, her son told her a very different story about what happened that day. Her son said to her that Max got in trouble for kicking a wall. After Max kicked the wall, her son alleges the staff restrained Max for what seemed like hours.
Caler’s son said that Max stopped moving after being in the restraint for 30 minutes. Staff accused Max of pretending to be asleep and continued to hold him in the restraint for another 30 minutes. Caler said the team only realized that Max was unresponsive after an hour.
Another parent from the class that wanted to remain anonymous echoed the same story about Max that Caler’s son told.
If their accounts are real, the school remained on top of an unconscious child for more than 30 minutes. The U.S. Department of Education has already warned educators in documents from 2012 that the “prone restraint” can lead to respiratory distress and death.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the story is not just that Max died, but that the school seems to have a pattern of restaining children without cause.
Following the death of Max, numerous parents spoke to the Sacramento Bee to share their stories of force used against their children and themselves.Caler said that staff restrained her son multiple times. She said she made a complaint to the school after staff gave her son a rug burn on his face from holding him the prone restraint.
Another parent, Melanie Stark, told the Bee that she filed a complaint against the school to the Department of Education for physically restraining her son. Stark said the school began using force with her son on his very first day of school in September.
According to Starks account, a female teacher physically wrapped her arms and legs around her 9-year-old son to prevent him from getting up from his desk. She said the teacher used the restraint up to 4 times a week on her child.
The school said the technique described by Stark is not a restraint. Instead, the school says the restraint is a “physical prompt” used to guide the child through an activity.
Another mom Rebecca St. Clair told the Bee that Max’s death reminded her of an incident that occurred between her son and staff. She said the team wedged her son on a thick gym mat. Next, the teachers wrapped another mat around her son and sat on top of her son.
St. Clair said that her son was placed on the edge of the mat, and the mat was digging into his bone. According to St. Clair, her son was crying but eventually calmed down. The only reason staff released him was because he calmed down.
After the Department of Education notified the school of their violations, the department suspended the school’s certification. Due to the suspension Guiding, Hands cannot enroll any new students. However, current students can still attend school.
Several parents told the Sacramento Bee they had already withdrawn their children from the school. Parents complained that the school failed to notify them about the incident before media coverage started to circulate.
The Sacramento Bee uncovered that dozens of parents of children have still not learned about the incident.
Despite the violations, the police in Dorado has not yet decided if a crime took place related to Max’s death. Max’s family is working with an attorney to help them manage legal matters with the school.
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