3 educators to be charged in 2018 restraint-related death of autistic student in California

EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. — Three ex-employees of a shuttered Northern California alternative school each face an involuntary manslaughter charge after a 2018 incident in which an autistic student died after being restrained, a prosecutor says.

Guiding Hands School Executive Director Cindy Keller, Principal Staranne Meyers and special education teacher Kimberly Wohlwend each face a charge of felony involuntary manslaughter, according to a Tuesday news release from the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office.

They are scheduled to be arraigned late Wednesday afternoon. CNN is trying to contact the staffers and their attorneys.

Guiding Hands School Inc., which owned the now-closed private alternative school in El Dorado Hills, will also be charged with a count of felony involuntary manslaughter, according to the news release.

The 13-year old boy, whose name authorities have not released, was restrained on November 28, 2018 after he became violent, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said.

The restraint left the boy unresponsive and he later died at University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, officials said.

School staff restrained the student out of fear he might hurt others, the sheriff’s office said in a statement released days after the boy’s death. A teacher administered CPR after the boy became unresponsive, the statement said.

There was no appearance “of foul play or criminal intent,” the sheriff’s office said at the time.

Guiding Hands School, which served students with disabilities, said only that staff members used “a nationally recognized behavior management protocol” during the incident — an approach the state Department of Education criticized.

The school provided no further details about what prompted the student’s behavior or how he was restrained. In a December statement to CNN affiliate KCRA, Guiding Hands said it was not providing details out of respect to the family and the ongoing investigation.

According to the prosecutor’s office, it was Wohlwend, the special ed teacher, who used a “prone restraint” on the teen, meaning she held him face-down on the ground.

School staffers underwent annual de-escalation training, a source familiar with school policy told CNN in December, and the last resort was to put a student in a “neutral position.”

Founded in 1993, the school closed in January, saying its “decision to surrender our certification is in the best interest of and for the benefit of our students, their parents, and our staff,” KCRA reported.

Before the school relinquished its certification, the California Department of Education suspended and then revoked the certification, citing “numerous investigations” and stating that the emergency restraint used on the teen employed unnecessary and unreasonable force.

“Current evidence supports a finding that GHS staff’s actions were harmful to the health, welfare and safety of an individual with exceptional needs,” the department said in December following its investigation.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge issued a brief stay in the decision to revoke the school’s certification, but the school a few days later notified the Department of Education that it “would retire (its) certification,” effective January 25.

“Revoking a school’s certification is an action that the CDE takes very seriously, and it is not done without careful consideration and justification,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in January.

“Guiding Hands’ refusal to take responsibility for its actions is disheartening. It would be an injustice to the families we serve if we did not do everything within our authority to ensure that students are placed in an environment where their safety is the number one priority of those who have been entrusted with their care.”

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