Guest Commentary: Need to Examine Student Restraint Guidelines

Community members gather last Thursday in remembrance of Max Benson

By Gloria Partida

On November 28th 13 year old Max Benson, who had a diagnosis of autism, died while being held in a prone restraint at the non public school he attended. These sterile facts tell little about the more important humanistic picture of Max. On December 20th I attended a vigil for Max held outside of the Davis school board meeting, just before that evening’s meeting started. Speaker after speaker told of a loving, caring, boy who loved dogs, rocks, nature and his family. Anyone that has had a 13 year old or been a 13 year old understands that 13 is a thunderbolt of intensity. 13 is goofy jokes, loud unregulated voices, unbridled impulses and lots of foot stomping. Autism is an amplifier of our humanity and in adolescence when we are bombarded with a slew of new emotions, curiosities and expectations, autism can make getting through a simple day unmanageable.

In 1984 when my son was nine months old he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Along with that diagnosis came a trajectory of expectations written through social norms meant to ease the navigation of non-*insert subgroup*typical people at large. Best to separate the other than face our bias. This approach worked for any sub-group in our society we were uncomfortable with. The suggestion to put my son “away,” to not expect he would meaningfully engage with the world was meant to make life easier for everyone.

The practice of balancing societal norms on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society is unsustainable and inevitably comes crashing down leaving us to scramble for ways to uphold whole new systems. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed this scramble reached critical mass all over the country. School districts especially were tasked with supporting students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. When we arrived in Davis in 1989 I had been advocating for my son to be mainstreamed. I did not want my son to take a 40 minute ride to the special ed school every morning when the neighborhood school where his siblings went was just down the street. I did not want him to be segregated from his community. When we did succeed in getting mainstream education in Davis we understood that not all students would be best served by this model. That some students needed to be in classrooms with more specialized support.

Having been a disability advocate for more than 30 years, I understand just how special specialized support is. For many children with special needs behavior management can be the biggest challenge to fully integrating into a community. Imagine parenting a 13 year old on their worst day almost every single day. Teachers that work in this area must be well trained and supported. Burnout is high and turnover great. Teachers that persevere are a godsend and too few and far between. I don’t know the details of what happened at the Guiding Hands school but I do know that avoiding this type of tragedy must be a top objective. It is time for us to take an honest look at our practices and ensure we are doing everything we can to keep all the children under our care safe and all teachers fully resourced.

This examination should begin by asking: what are the guidelines in our own school district for restraint? How is oversight managed by our school district for children placed outside of  our system? What type of training is given to our teachers in de-escalation and physical intervention? How can we foster programs closer to home to give parents choices that are easier for us to oversee? When we advocated for mainstream education all those years ago, the prime motivation was to keep our children in their communities. When someone belongs to a community they are protected and cared for by everyone that is part of that community. Max belonged to Davis he should not have died so far from home.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. John Hobbs

    Guiding Hands violated state laws and best practices. Negligent homicide is the phrase that comes to mind. What needs to be analyzed is why we empower these “educators” to bully the most vulnerable students into compliance. (Benson became unresponsive while being held in a ‘prone restraint’ for nearly an hour, according to a source familiar with the investigation. [])

    There are numerous other complaints from parents about the “restraint” practices of this school.  The fact that DJUSD ignorantly placed a student there is minimal mitigation for the district’s liability. How may other students are refereed by the district to such unregulated and mismanaged facilities? Perhaps there is where any investigation by DJUSD should begin.

      1. Howard P

        Good question, related to DJUSD… did the district “place” him, or offer suggestions to parents if the district could not meet his needs?  Who paid for the schooling, DJUSD or parents, or combination?

        John Hobbs has good (damn good) points… saw this too with Families First… saw an ~ 15 year old tackled by three ‘counselors’ on the bikepath along Fifth… 3 of them (two guys and a gal)… one sat on the kid’s back while ‘taking a smoke’… I was walking by and asked what was up… was confronted by one of the guys who said “it was none of your business”… there were three of them, the confronter had at least 50 lbs on me… the student had a bloody nose and was obviously in distress… in the prone position, but the only ‘restraint’ was the ‘counselor’ (~190 lbs) sitting on the small of his back with the two others standing by… so, when I moved ~ 25 feet away, I called DPD…  before I finished the call, a squad car was coming from PD… dispatcher informed me that they had heard, and they were responding… had the feeling that it was far from the first incident.

        John’s points don’t just apply to the proximate facility in this storyline.  It may well be endemic.

        This story should be explored, and likely expanded…

        Very glad Families First is no longer in our community, but I believe they still operate elsewhere in CA.

        emq families first

        1. Alan Miller

          I was walking by and asked what was up… was confronted by one of the guys who said “it was none of your business”

          Ugly.  Good line on that blubberbrain’s part, that’s when it immediately becomes my focus.  Good job calling the cops.

      2. John Hobbs

        “Previously a student at Birch Lane Elementary School, Max was more recently placed at Guiding Hands School by the Davis Joint Unified School District.”

        Davis Enterprise, Dec 10, 2018

        1. Howard P

          Thank you, John Hobbs…(am assuming the reporting was accurate–it is the “Davis Emptyprise”, so not sure if that was a press release by DJUSD, or investigative reporting, or a supposition), but thank you… questions remain… did parents have input/choice?  Who paid?  District, State, parents?

          Not expecting you to have those answers, John, but your points are important ones, that should be pursued…



  2. Eric Gelber

    Thank you, Gloria, for bringing attention to the right of students with disabilities to be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” which means students are to receive their education in regular classrooms and schools to the maximum extent appropriate. Removal from regular classrooms is to be a last resort and used only to the extent necessary to meet a student’s educational goals and objectives. This right actually predates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and was required federally with enactment of what is now the the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

    To answer others’ question, if it is determined that a local education agency (LEA) cannot meet a student’s needs in a public school setting, the LEA is responsible for identifying and paying for a non-public school placement. (If the school district can provide an appropriate education in a public school setting, some parents may choose to place their child in a non-public school at their own expense.)

    Prone (face down) restraint is a potentially dangerous technique and is restricted by law in when and how it may be used. Some states have banned it entirely. The questions posed at the end of the article are important ones to answer.

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