El Dorado Hills school and staffers indicted in death of 13-year-old autistic boy

A now-closed private school for special needs students in the Sacramento area and three of its former employees have been charged in connection with the 2018 death of a 13-year-old autistic boy who was held face down for nearly two hours, the said authorities.

The Guiding Hands School, former principal Starrane Meyers, administrator Cindy Keller and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend were indicted by a criminal grand jury on July 15 on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, said Savannah Broddrick, a spokeswoman for the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office . All three have pleaded not guilty.

The death of college student Max Benson in November 2018 made headlines. Sheriff’s officers said Max became violent and stopped breathing while being restrained by school officers. An employee performed CPR until paramedics arrived.

Benson was taken to a Folsom hospital before being transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, where he later died.

According to Sacramento County Superior Court records, Max was held for about an hour and 45 minutes, the California Department of Education said.

Cindy Keller (right), Principal of Guiding Hands School, Principal Starranne Meyers and Teacher Kimberly Wohlwend

Guiding Hands School administrator Cindy Keller (right), principal Starranne Meyers (centre) and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend (left) accused of detaining 13-year-old Max Benson were arrested on March 11, 2019 .

(Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee)

The charges come after the two administrators and the teacher were charged with involuntary manslaughter by county prosecutors in November 2019 in connection with Max’s death. All three employees have pleaded not guilty this month and are currently out of custody, Broddrick said.

According to Broddrick, special criminal grand juries meet about once a year in El Dorado County. The accused or their lawyers will appear in court for a hearing on September 2. Her attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The boy’s death led to an investigation by the California Department of Education and the Sheriff’s Office, which concluded that there was no evidence of foul play. However, the Department of Education revoked the school’s state certification in 2018, preventing new students from being enrolled at the site.

The school argued in court that the department had no evidence for the suspension of certification and that it would leave the school in financial ruin. The administration decided to close the school permanently in January 2019.

The Department of Education said the staff violated the school law by detaining the boy and that the agency was unaware of the boy’s death until officials visited the school unannounced, the suspension letter said.

The boy’s family also filed a civil lawsuit against the school in November 2019, saying Max was restrained after he spat on another student. The family accused Wohlwend and another teacher of performing a “takedown maneuver” by holding Max’s hands behind his back, causing him to fall to his knees and moving him face down, according to the lawsuit.

The teachers then held the boy down on the floor, with Wohlwend holding Max’s torso while another teacher held his legs, according to the lament. The boy vomited and urinated while being held, his family said, adding that medical records say he aspirated and went into cardiac arrest.

The family accused school staff of failing to act on Max’s signs of physical distress and Wohlwend of holding the boy for seven minutes after he fell unconscious. The school “routinely used abdominal belts to harm children and create a reign of terror in the educational environment,” according to the lawsuit.

“Evidence supports the finding that the actions of GHS workers were detrimental to the health, welfare and safety of a person with exceptional needs,” the California Department of Education said in its report.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-22/el-dorado-hills-school-staffers-indicted-in-death-of-13-year-old-autistic-boy El Dorado Hills school and staffers indicted in death of 13-year-old autistic boy

Alley Einstein

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