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Probe into death of student with autism finds school violated rules

EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. — A preliminary investigation into the death of a 13-year-old student with autism at a Northern California private school has found the school violated state rules when its staff put him in a face-down restraint position for nearly an hour. The California Department of Education found "sufficient evidence" that staffers at Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills violated multiple state rules governing how and when physical restraints can be used on students, the Sacramento Bee reported.

The boy, identified as Max Benson, became unresponsive while being held in a "prone restraint" for nearly an hour at the school on Nov. 28 and died a day later at UC Davis Medical Center.

"Max's family is in terrible grief and they are, as I would expect, trying to deal with the shock and the loss that they face," Seth Goldstein, an attorney for Benson's mother, told CBS Sacramento

Two parents who said their children witnessed the physical restraint told them Benson was disciplined by a teacher and teacher's aide for kicking a wall, the Sacramento Bee reported.  

Cherilyn Caler said her son told her that Benson was restrained for a period he described as lasting for hours and after he stopped moving, the staff told Benson to stop pretending he was sleeping. After about 30 minutes, the classmate said staff realized Benson was unresponsive and called for medical assistance.

Caler said her son has been put in a restraint before at Guiding Hands, and the boy has told her students sometimes pretend to be asleep so staff would release them.

"Not knowing what the behavior was, anything that results in death short of him trying to kill somebody else is not appropriate," Seth Goldstein, an attorney for Benson's mother, told CBS Sacramento

Scott Rose, a spokesman for Guiding Hands School, said in a statement Saturday that school officials were concerned that details in the Sacramento Bee's story were inaccurate but did not give specifics.

"We are reviewing our files and information in order to present accurate information as soon as we are able," Rose said.

The El Dorado County Sheriff's Office said Benson had become violent with a staff member on Nov. 28, jeopardizing the safety of others around him. Investigators also initially described Benson as 6-feet tall and about 280 pounds. But Goldstein, citing medical records from January, told CBS Sacramento that he was 5'3 and weighed only 180 pounds.

Authorities also had reported Max had severe autism, but Goldstein says that's not true.

"As I understand, he was highly intelligent, very verbal and was not what somebody would call severe," Goldstein said.

CBS Sacramento reached out to the El Dorado County Sheriff's office several times Friday about the conflicting information, but their calls were not returned. 

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