A reckoning for Max

After a year of waiting, family of autistic student who died at El Dorado Hills school sees charges filed against staff

This story has been expanded from its print edition.

Just days before Max Benson’s family planned to hold a candlelight vigil demanding justice for the lost 13-year-old, the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office announced that a year-long investigation resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges for three employees of the special education school where Benson died.

Benson was an autistic student sent to Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills by the Elk Grove Unified School District, supposedly so he could get an education tailored to his special needs. On Nov. 28, 2018, staff at the school allegedly put Benson in a dangerous restraint hold, resulting in his death.

After of year of waiting, Benson’s mother, Stacie Langley, penned an open letter describing her son’s final moments, pinned down “on all fours” while one teacher sat on him.

“Max asked repeatedly to use the bathroom. Guiding Hands staff ignored him, and forced him to urinate on himself,” Langley wrote. “He told staff that he was becoming nauseated. Staff still ignored him. Then, Max vomited. Again, staff ignored him and continued to hold him face down.”

Benson eventually stopped breathing and later died at a hospital. His family was planning a Nov. 17 vigil in front of the DA’s office; five days before it was to happen, criminal charges were announced for Guiding Hands teacher Kim Wohlwend, principal Staranne Meyers and executive director Cindy Keller.

The vigil still happened, though Karen Hirsch, a friend of the family, told SN&R its focus shifted to honoring Benson and to taking a stand against dangerous restraint practices in schools. Benson’s family has also filed a civil suit against Guiding Hands, as well as Elk Grove Unified for contracting with it.

“What happened to Max can never be allowed to happen again to other innocent children,” his mother wrote in her letter.