Teen with autism dies after being restrained at school

A 13-year-old boy with autism who school officials allege became violent died last week after he was restrained by a teacher.

The El Dorado Sheriff's Office is investigating the Nov. 28 incident at Guiding Hands School, an inclusive private K-12 school in El Dorado Hills. A news release from the Sheriff's Office said the boy, who was 6 feet tall and weighed about 280 pounds, was being restrained for the safety of staff members and other students when he became unresponsive.

"A teacher began CPR until medical aid arrived," the news release said. "The student was transported to Mercy Folsom in critical condition and later to UC Davis (Medical Center)."

He died two days later.

"At this time, there appears to be no evidence of foul play or criminal intent," investigators said in the release.

Detectives are conducting a full investigation of what happened, officials said.

The Sacramento Bee reported that the California Department of Education has suspended the school's certification while it conducts its own investigation. The El Dorado County District Attorney's Office is also looking into what happened.

The Bee reported that a source familiar with the incident said a teacher placed the boy in what is called a "prone restraint," a restraint move that immobilizes a person in a face-down position. The boy was held in that position for about an hour before he became unresponsive, the newspaper said.

A lawyer with Disability Rights California told the Bee that the restraint position is legal in California, under some circumstances, but risky.

"(Restraints) can cause trauma and death and, more importantly, there are better ways to respond to behavior, particularly disability behavior," attorney Candis Bowles told the newspaper. "It's not inconsistent that they used an approved restraint technique and this happened, but it might not have been implemented correctly and, obviously it wasn't, because he died."

2002 study on prone restraint by the advocacy group found that the prone restraint was potentially lethal because, even when done correctly, it puts a person at risk of asphyxiation. A 2007 report on restraint in California schools had similar findings.

El Dorado County Sheriff's Sgt. Anthony Principe told the Bee the agency's investigation into the teacher's actions is not considered a criminal matter.

The suspension of the school’s certification means it cannot accept new students until the matter is resolved, a Department of Education spokesman said.

"In the meantime, the department is continuing its investigation to see if further action is necessary," Bill Ainsworth told the Bee.

The school issued a written statement through public relations firm Runyon Saltzman.

“It is with heavy hearts that we share the very difficult news that a beloved member of our school community has passed away,” the statement read. “Out of respect for the family, and the ongoing investigation, we are unable to share full details at this time.”

According to state records, Guiding Hands has a total enrollment of 137 this school year. The school's website said that classes are open to students ages 2 to 21.

"Our small class size and 1:5 staff to student ratio mean our students will always be our primary focus," the website reads.

The Bee reported that the school was previously sued by the mother of another teenage student who was restrained multiple times during the 2002-2003 school year. In 2004, Deborah Lamerson sued the school, which at the time had a contract to handle services for special needs students in the Sacramento school district.

The lawsuit stated that in one incident, school staff members restrained Lamerson’s daughter, Tracee, after the girl, who has developmental delays caused by Williams syndrome, became agitated because she was not allowed to call her mother after a fall on the bus to school that morning. Tracee Lamerson’s arm was broken in the fall.

The girl, then about 13 years old, was placed in a four-point restraint move and, while being held down, vomited. The Bee reported that the lawsuit claims she was forced to clean up the mess.

"I was so afraid to go back," Tracee Lamerson, now 29, told the newspaper Thursday. "I don't like that they are still open and that they can restrain anyone."

It was not immediately clear if the Lamersons’ lawsuit has been resolved. The Bee reported that Guiding Hands is no longer affiliated with Sacramento’s schools.

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