School Where Student With Autism Died Violated State Regulations, Officials Say
Updated Dec. 10 at 4:10 p.m. ET
A school in California where a student on the autism spectrum died last week after being physically restrained violated several state regulations, according to findings from a preliminary investigation by the state's Department of Education.
On Nov. 28, 13-year-old Max Benson was restrained by a staff member at his small private school in El Dorado Hills, Calif. While he was being restrained, Max lost consciousness.
The El Dorado County Sheriff's Office was called to Guiding Hands School (GHS), where a teacher was performing CPR on the boy. He was then taken to a hospital in critical condition, according to a statement from the Sheriff's Office.
Two days later, the Sheriff's Office learned that he had died.
The statement said that Max, who was reported as 6 feet tall and weighing 280 pounds, "became violent," and was restrained in an effort to protect his classmates and the school's staff.
But, according to a California Department of Education letter released to The Sacramento Bee, the restraint was applied "for longer than was necessary" with "an amount of force which is not reasonable and necessary under the circumstances."
The letter said the restraint was used as an "emergency intervention" in response to "predictable behavior," which is a violation of state regulations.
"Current evidence supports a finding GHS staff's actions were harmful to the health, welfare and safety of an individual with exceptional needs," according to the letter.
The Benson family's lawyer, Seth Goldstein, did not respond to NPR's request for comment, but told The Sacramento Bee that Benson was about 8 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than was initially reported to the sheriff's department.
The state suspended the school's certification on Dec. 5, one week after the incident occurred. The year-long suspension allows the school to stay open, but stops it from accepting new students.
The Department of Education hasn't completed its investigation into the incident yet, but its letter says the school is likely to face "required corrective actions."
The Sheriff's Office is also pursuing a full investigation, according to a Dec. 6 statement from the department. "At this time, there appears to be no evidence of foul play or criminal intent," according to the statement.
NPR sent requests for comment to the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office, the California Department of Education and Guiding Hands School, but did not receive a response on Sunday afternoon.
The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for Guiding Hands School, Scott Rose, said in a statement on Saturday that school officials are concerned some of the information that the Bee reported was inaccurate. Rose didn't point to any specific inaccuracies.
"We are reviewing our files and information in order to present accurate information as soon as we are able," Rose said. Previously, the school said it was cooperating with regulators, but that staff had used a "nationally recognized behavior management protocol," according to the Associated Press.
Goldstein, the family's lawyer, told the Bee that "whenever a disciplinary matter or an action is taken to correct behavior, it has to be reasonable under the circumstances. If it's unreasonable or unwarranted, it's an offense."
Guiding Hands School provides special education services to students with exceptional needs. That means it's supposed to work with each student within the boundaries of an "individualized education program" designed just for them.
That program can include something called a "behavior intervention plan," a strategy of "positive" intervention intended to help students understand what happened and how they can act differently next time.
Like many students with disabilities, Max Benson had his own "behavior intervention plan." But, according to the California Department of Education's preliminary investigation, the staff at Guiding Hands School didn't follow it.
Other parents at the school have been interviewed by the Bee about their own children's experiences with being restrained.
One parent – Cherilyn Caler – told the newspaper that her son, who is on the autism spectrum, witnessed Max being restrained for kicking a wall.
Physically restraining students with disabilities has long been a controversial practice. California has recently moved to place limits on the use of "dangerous restraint practices," but it remains legal under certain circumstances.
And it's not just California. In 2009, NPR reported findings from the investigative arm of Congress that showed a large number of schools were using potentially dangerous methods to discipline children, including restraints and seclusion. Often time, these practices were used on students with disabilities in special education classes.
In California and in Texas alone, there were more than 33,000 cases of restraints and seclusion used in the 2007-2008 school year, according to the report.
In some cases, the report found, children even died when large adults pinned them down to try to calm them down, but accidentally suffocated them instead. One child, a 7-year old girl from Wisconsin, died after being restrained because she was fidgeting and blowing bubbles in her milk.
In 2014, NPR and ProPublica looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education and found that children in public schools — most of them students with disabilities — were being restrained much more than had previously been understood. According to the analysis, children were secluded or restrained at least 267,000 times in the 2011-2012 school year.
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