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

·3 min read
Stacia Langley holds a photo of her late son Max Benson next to a tree he grew from a seed in his grandfather's backyard in Davis, Calif., Nov. 10, 2019. Benson, a 13-year-old autistic student, died after being restrained for almost two hours for allegedly spitting at a classmate. The Sacramento Bee reported, Thursday, July 21, 2022, that a recently convened special criminal grand jury indicted Guiding Hands, its former principal, a teacher and site administrator Cindy Keller for involuntary manslaughter. (Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee via AP)
Stacia Langley holds a photo of her late son Max Benson next to a tree he grew from a seed in his grandfather's backyard in Davis, Calif., in November 2019. Max, a 13-year-old autistic student, died after being restrained for almost two hours after he allegedly spit at a classmate. (Daniel Kim / Associated Press)

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

Guiding Hands School, former Principal Starrane Meyers, administrator Cindy Keller and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend were indicted on one charge of involuntary manslaughter by a criminal grand jury July 15, said Savannah Broddrick, a spokesperson for the El Dorado County district attorney's office. All three have pleaded not guilty.

The November 2018 death of student Max Benson sparked headlines. Sheriff's officials said Max turned violent and while restrained by school officials stopped breathing. A staff member performed CPR until emergency responders arrived.

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

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

Guiding Hands school site administrator Cindy Keller, right, principal Starranne Meyers and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend
Guiding Hands school site administrator Cindy Keller, right, principal Starranne Meyers, center, and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend, left, accused of restraining 13-year-old Max Benson, were arraigned in El Dorado Superior Court in Placerville, Calif., on Nov. 13, 2019. (Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee)

The indictment comes after the two administrators and teacher were each charged with a felony count of involuntary manslaughter by county prosecutors in November 2019 in connection with Max's death. All three employees entered a not guilty plea that month and are currently out of custody, Broddrick said.

Special criminal grand juries meet about once a year in El Dorado County, Broddrick said. The defendants or their attorneys will appear in court Sept. 2 for a trial-setting hearing. Their attorneys didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

The boy's death prompted investigations by the California Department of Education and the Sheriff's Office, which concluded there wasn't 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 didn't have evidence to support the certification suspension and that it would leave the school in financial ruin. Administrators decided to close the school permanently in January 2019.

The Department of Education said staff violated school code by restraining the boy and that the agency didn't know about the boy's death until officials visited the school unannounced, according to the suspension letter.

The boy’s family also filed a civil lawsuit against the school in November 2019, saying that Max was restrained after he spit at another student. The family accused Wohlwend and another teacher of administering a “takedown maneuver” by holding Max’s hands behind his back, dropping him to his knees and moving him facedown, according to the lawsuit.

The teachers then restrained the boy on the floor, with Wohlwend holding Max's upper body while another teacher held his legs, according to the lawsuit. The boy vomited and urinated while he was being restrained, his family said, adding that based on medical records, he aspirated and went into cardiac arrest.

The family accused school staff of neglecting to respond to Max's signs of physical distress and Wohlwend of continuing to restrain the boy for seven minutes after he went unconscious. The school “routinely used prone restraints to injure children and to create a reign of terror within the education environment,” according to the lawsuit.

“Evidence supports a finding that GHS staff’s actions were harmful to the health, welfare and safety of an individual with exceptional needs," the California Department of Education said in its report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.