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California

El Dorado Hills school where special-needs student died will close

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Guiding Hands School, which serves students with special needs, announced it will close this week in the wake of the death of a 13-year-old autistic boy.
(Google)

An El Dorado Hills school at the center of an investigation over the death of a 13-year-old autistic student announced this week that it plans to close its doors permanently on Friday.

Guiding Hands School, a private school that has served students with disabilities since 1993, made headlines when a student, identified as Max Benson, died after being placed in a face-down restraint by school staff in November. The California Department of Education said the boy was held down for an hour and 45 minutes, according to Sacramento Superior Court records.

El Dorado County Sheriff’s officials said the boy turned violent and had to be restrained by staff to prevent other people from getting hurt. During the restraint, Max stopped breathing and a teacher began CPR until paramedics arrived. He was taken to a Folsom hospital, then to a UC Davis hospital, where he died.

The incident sparked an investigation by sheriff’s officials and the Department of Education. The Sheriff’s Department found no evidence of foul play, but the Education Department suspended the school’s state certification in December, barring it from accepting new students. In January, the department revoked the certification, which meant public districts no longer could use special-education funds to pay for students to attend the school.

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Guiding Hands said in a statement Monday that its decision to close makes room for another nonpublic school to take over the four-acre campus. A new school would be able to hire former staffers and enroll Guiding Hands’ students.

In court papers, 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.”

The school fought the department’s decision to revoke its certification in court, arguing that it didn’t have evidence to support its actions and the move would bankrupt the school. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi ordered state regulators to return to court in two weeks with a completed investigation of the school. That hearing is scheduled for Friday, but according to its statement, Guiding Hands School notified the Department of Education on Jan. 17 that it will retire its certification and close.

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Given that the majority of the school’s 119 students were publicly placed and the state’s move prompted some districts to immediately remove their students, the damage had already been done, according to Guiding Hands.

“Though Guiding Hands School categorically denies the allegations asserted by the CDE in its premature Notice of Revocation, the decision to surrender our certification is in the best interest of and for the benefit of our students, their parents, and our staff,” the school wrote in a statement.

“Many districts, students and parents chose to stay with us over these last few weeks and we cannot express our heartfelt gratitude enough for their faith in GHS staff, the school, and program,” the school wrote. “But understandably, many parents and districts need a level of security which the [court’s] two-week stay could not provide. In the end, our loyalty is to our students, parents, and devoted staff, to offer them the opportunity to obtain security and stability.”

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @Hannahnfry


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