Parents, friends of the family and community members are demanding answers after a Davis teen, 13 year old Max Benson died on November 28 after he was subjected to a restraint by a teacher at privately-run Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills.
An attorney for the family put out a statement that “these private-for-profit schools are not directly accountable to the public they serve, but are merely on contract with the respective districts, putting students at grave risk.”
A family friend, who held a vigil spoke at public comment on Thursday night and noted that Max was sent to this school because of his special needs. She said that the school has been cited for violating state rules, but they are still open and have kids in their care.
“Max was restrained for an hour for kicking a wall,” she told the board. “He was a DJUSD student who sent to this school because our local district has no appropriate programs or classrooms for kids with autism who are not able to access their education in a traditional classroom.”
Seth Goldstein in a statement this week said, “Too few inspections and controls are imposed upon them by the school districts that place special needs children in the private school’s care.”
“Too few inspections and controls are imposed upon them by the school districts that place special needs children in the private school’s care,” said Mr. Goldstein, “California is acutely aware that the use of restraints and seclusion in educational settings is dangerous, ineffective and counterproductive. In the case of Max Benson, the State of California has failed to properly oversee these schools and the result has been-catastrophe.”
A preliminary investigation by the California Department of Education found the school violated multiple state rules in Max Benson’s death. Benson, who was 5ft 4 inches tall and about 230 Ibs, was allegedly subjected to a “neutral position” restraint hold by a Guiding Hands School teacher. Mr. Goldstein said that when this restraint is used it has been found to be deadly.
Mr. Goldstein said these “restraint” techniques are so dangerous and traumatizing that a number of states specifically outlaw or limit their use _and even the federal government has warned schools not to use them.
Max’s family was too overcome with grief to attend the candle light vigil outside of Community Chamber which drew at least 50 people – many of them friends of the family.
“The family wanted to be here tonight, but they’re still very deep into the grieving process and so it just wasn’t possible for them to come,” one of the speakers explained. “Their hope is that what happened to Max never happens again to another child in California and that no other family has to go through what this family had to go through.”
Lisa Wright has known the family for ten years. She said that one of her memories of Max was when he was in Kindergarten as was her kids, “Max was in a different K-1 class, than (her kids) and often he was let out before they were released. Almost everyday Max would find me outside the classroom and inevitably I would be the recipient of one of his infamous hugs.
“Life for all three kids wasn’t easy, particularly at school and somehow Max knew I needed his hugs before transitioning to the likely meltdown that was likely to occur in my house. I am convinced that kids like Max and Julia are far more attuned to the needs of people than one might assume spectrum kids are,” she said.
She said, “I was privy to his good and loving heart, his decency, and his desire to connect on almost a daily basis. For that I will be forever grateful for sharing himself with me.”
Jennifer, who organized the event, said that she was one of the lucky ones who got to see Max in some of his most relaxed moments. She would often see him walk the neighborhood with his mom and their dogs.
“The last time I saw him was only a few days before he left this world,” she said. “I always have to make a choice as to whether to stop and say hello assuming it will not interrupt a good moment or to just let it exist on his own.”
She has her own son with autism and felt a connection with the family going through similar challenges. “They live just seven houses away. My world became less lonely just from that perspective,” she explained.
She would explain that often the only people she socialized with for days at a time were Max and his mother. “Our worlds are very isolated, very few understand and often judge. (His mother) and Max understood. We understood them.”
She noted that Max “always had the best hair.” It was tinted “reddish.”
“Thanks Max for sharing your beautiful spirit with us,” she said. “Your memory will live on – I’ll be sure of it.”
Later she said, “one thing I promised the dad when I spoke to him this morning, this is just the beginning. Things are going to change. There is not going to be another child who dies at the hands of their school. This is just the beginning. We will see justice for Max.”
In his release, Seth Goldstein explains that the Assembly just enacted AB 2657 which goes into effect on January 1, 2019, which confirms that “restraints” are inherently danger. It states, “there is no evidence that restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of those techniques,” and “restraint and seclusion may cause serious injury or long lasting trauma and death, even when done safely and correctly.”
Mr. Goldstein said however that the Assembly bill does not go far enough and his law office is now moving to end these practices in California and nationwide and close any school the employs them.
“These deadly practices need to be banned altogether and those schools that use them shut down immediately,” he said.
—David M. Greenwald reporting