Autistic 13-year-old Max Benson died at the Guiding Hands School after being restrained by a staff member in late November 2018. Now, the since-shuttered private school in the suburbs of Sacramento, California, is facing criminal charges along with three former employees.
The defunct institution was essentially forced to close after state regulators set their sights on its certification in late 2018. After a series of court battles, the Golden State got its wish, though the school won a temporary reprieve before ultimately surrendering its certification voluntarily in early 2019, a timeline of events supplied by Sacramento-based ABC affiliate KXTV explains.
For some 25 years, the private school served the affluent, census-designated community of El Dorado Hills and surrounding school districts as a way for public schools in the region to serve special needs students and their families – some of whom spoke out in support as the school was publicly criticized and eventually closed. Guiding Hands was later replaced with a similar entity providing similar services.
This week, ex-principal Starrane Meyers, ex-teacher Kimberly Wohlwend, and ex-site administrator Cindy Keller were indicted on one charge each of involuntary manslaughter by a “recently convened special criminal grand jury,” according to The Sacramento Bee.
The newspaper reportedly confirmed those indictments, the results of a “recently convened special criminal grand jury,” with El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Savannah Broddrick on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.
Each of the three women were previously charged with manslaughter in November 2019 – along with the corporation that owns Guiding Hands. The defendants were quickly arraigned and entered not guilty pleas. The trio was ordered by a judge not to teach or work with children in the interim as their case dragged on procedurally.
That work limitation carried particular salience for Wohlwend, the teacher accused of actually starting to restrain Benson (after she claimed he spit on another student). She went on teach at another school in the area after the deadly incident, according to Stockton, Calif.-based CBS affiliate KOVR.
The new indictments are currently sealed, the Bee reports, but a civil lawsuit filed by the boy’s family contains some details regarding the allegations. Wohlwend is accused of holding the middle school boy in a restraint position for nearly two hours as others held down his legs as part of a so-called “take down maneuver.” The pinned-down boy went on to vomit and urinate during the ordeal, the lawsuit reportedly says, while the school nurse allegedly took more than 10 minutes to respond and employees allegedly waited for 25 minutes after he was unconscious to call paramedics as he went into cardiac arrest.
Benson died two days later.
A 2018 report by the California Department of Education says that school staff used “an amount of force which is not reasonable and necessary under the circumstances” for 105 minutes.
“Current evidence supports a finding GHS staff’s actions were harmful to the health, welfare and safety of an individual with exceptional needs,” the agency said in a letter obtained by the Bee.
In April 2020, a plea deal was rumored, according to the Mountain Democrat. But those negotiations ultimately went nowhere.
“If a case isn’t moving, we can do a criminal grand jury to move it along,” Broddrick told the Associated Press – stressing that the form of grand jury used to obtain the additional indictments was separate and different from the normal, previously used process.
Keller, Meyers and Wohlwend are currently slated for a court hearing on Sept. 2, 2022.
Law&Crime reached out to the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office for comment on the case.
[image via screengrab/KCRA]
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