Private Northern California school, staff charged in autistic child’s death

SACRAMENTO — A private school in Northern California and three of its staffers have been charged for involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 death of a 13-year-old autistic student, who died after being restrained for almost two hours for allegedly spitting at a classmate.

A recently convened special criminal grand jury indicted Guiding Hands, a now-closed school for students with special needs in the Sacramento suburb of El Dorado Hills, its former principal Starrane Meyers, teacher Kimberly Wohlwend and site administrator Cindy Keller, the Sacramento Bee reported Thursday.

Guiding Hands school site administrator Cindy Keller, right, principal Starranne Meyers, center, and teacher Kimberly Wohlwend, left, accused of restraining 13-year-old Max Benson, were arraigned in El Dorado Superior Court in Placerville, Calif., on Nov. 13, 2019. The Sacramento Bee reported, Thursday, July 21, 2022, that a recently convened special criminal grand jury indicted Guiding Hands, its former principal, a teacher and site administrator Cindy Keller for involuntary manslaughter. (Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee via AP) 

Each was indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, El Dorado County District Attorney Office spokeswoman Savannah Broddrick said.

The indictments, which remain sealed, come almost three years after county prosecutors filed manslaughter charges against the defendants in November 2019. The three educators each entered a not guilty plea at an initial arraignment that month, and then the case dragged on in court as the two sides discussed a plea deal and the defendants changed attorneys, according to the Bee and prosecutors.

“If a case isn’t moving, we can do a criminal grand jury to move it along,” said Broddrick.

Wohlwend is accused of holding 13-year-old Max Benson in a restraint position for more than one hour and 45-minutes, as other staffers allegedly helped carry out a “take down maneuver” and held down his legs, according to a separate civil lawsuit filed by the boy’s family.

Attorneys for the school and staff did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Max was restrained for allegedly spitting at a classmate. According to court documents, he was unconscious when an ambulance arrived, after having vomited and urinated on himself while being held face-down on the floor. He died a day later at UC Davis Medical Center.

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