• Molly Watson

Three staff members at Guiding Hands school charged in death of special needs student

Such a tragic case. Back in November 2018, staff at the Guiding Hands School, which is a nonpublic school in El Dorado Hills, California, allegedly killed a thirteen-year-old student with autism, Max Benson, when the staff placed him face down in a restraint for an extended period of time. Executive Director and Site Administrator Cindy Keller, Principal Staranne Meyers and special education teacher Kimberly Wohlwend each face one charge of felony involuntary manslaughter for the November 2018 incident.

This incident brought to my mind another boy that I represented more than a decade ago. In that case, on several occasions, school district staff restrained the little boy, who had asthma, while he was lying spread eagle with his face down on his classroom floor. According to the safety warnings in the training manual published by the company that taught school staff how to subject students to restraints, restraints are never to be used on people with asthma nor on people who are lying face down because they could too easily be asphyxiated. Unlike Max, that little boy's story had a happier ending: He survived the misuse of restraints. And, with my help, he obtained appropriate special education behavioral and other supports to meet his unique needs.

To address the problems associated with the use of restraints, in 2018 California Governor Brown signed AB 2657, which is a bill designed to protect students by requiring schools to avoid, whenever possible, seclusion or behavioral restraints and to use these practices only when there is a clear and present danger of serious physical self-harm or harm to others. The bill, which went into effect January 1, 2019, only allows the use of restraints to control behavior that poses a clear and present danger of serious physical harm to the pupil or others that cannot be immediately prevented by a response that is less restrictive, and if other specified conditions are met. The bill expressly forbids the use of restraints that obstruct or impair breathing.

As for the Guiding Hands School, soon after Max died, the California Department of Education revoked the school's certification after finding that the school violated multiple laws by using the restraints on Max. They concluded that the staff’s actions were harmful to his health, welfare or safety. The school has since been shuttered.

The attorney for the Guiding Hands School issued a statement following the incident categorically denying the California Department of Education's allegations.

Whatever the outcome of the involuntary manslaughter charges against the three staff members of the Guiding Hands School, my hope is that the bill the Governor signed into law in 2018 prohibiting most restraints in public schools will protect children, such as Max, from succumbing to terrible tragic fates.

Molly Watson

Special Education Attorney

Telephone: 530-273-2740


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The information on the Caledattorney website is general information for California residents only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice or relied on for any individual case or situation.  We serve clients throughout California and  Northern California including Fresno, San Jose, PlacervilleStockton, Redding, Chico, Auburn, Grass Valley, Sacramento, Truckee, Marysville, Redding, San Francisco, Truckee, Elk Grove, Yuba City, EurekaSanta Rosa, Vacaville and Fairfield.

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