After autistic boy dies during school restraint, 3 educators charged with manslaughter

Three staff members at Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills were charged this week with involuntary manslaughter following the death of a student.

Two administrators and a teacher who worked at a now-shuttered El Dorado Hills school are facing criminal charges in the death of a 13-year-old autistic student at the school last year, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Guiding Hands School, a Northern California private school that served students with disabilities for more than 20 years before it closed in January, made headlines when Max Benson died after being placed in a facedown restraint by school staff in November 2018. The California Department of Education said the boy was held down for an hour and 45 minutes, according to Sacramento Superior Court records.

Cindy Keller, the school’s former executive director, former principal Staranne Meyers and special education teacher Kimberly Wohlwend have each been charged with a felony count of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the boy’s death.

Wohlwend restrained Max on Nov. 28, 2018, at the school after the boy spit at another student, according to a civil lawsuit filed by the boy’s family against the school this month.


The lawsuit alleges two teachers, including Wohlwend, performed a takedown maneuver by holding Max’s hands behind his back, then dropping him to his knees and rolling him facedown. They restrained him on the floor, with Wohlwend holding the boy’s upper body while another teacher held his legs, according to the suit.

The lawsuit states the boy urinated on himself and vomited while being held. Authorities say at some point, Max stopped breathing and a school nurse began performing CPR, continuing until paramedics arrived. Based on medical reports provided to the family, the lawsuit contends that Max aspirated and went into cardiac arrest. He was taken to Folsom hospital, then to a UC Davis hospital, where he died.

Prosecutors did not provide details as to how Keller and Meyers were connected to the incident. The three are expected to be arraigned in El Dorado County Superior Court on Wednesday, prosecutors said.

The deadly encounter sparked a lengthy investigation by sheriff’s officials and the Department of Education, which suspended the school’s state certification in December, barring it from accepting new students. In January, the department revoked the school’s certification, which meant public districts no longer could use special-education funds to pay for students to attend the school.

The school fought the department’s decision in court, arguing that it didn’t have evidence to support its actions and the move would bankrupt the school. However, administrators later decided to close the campus.

In court papers filed in January, the California Department of Education wrote that the school used restraints “in a manner inconsistent with the law.”

“These violations are not limited to one student, one incident or one staff member,” the agency wrote. “The CDE is concerned that the violations related to restraints and emergency interventions are ongoing.”