EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. – A 13-year-old boy with severe autism died Friday after being restrained by staff at a California school, according to the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff's office spokesman Sgt. Anthony Prencipe says the student at private alternative school Guiding Hands became violent on Wednesday, Nov. 28 and needed to be restrained by school staff.
The student became unresponsive and a teacher began to give him CPR, according to the sheriff's office.
The boy was taken to UC Davis Medical Center where he later died.
"As soon as this was happening we sent down deputies, as well as detectives down," Prencipe said. "Started interviewing everybody that was a witness to it and started getting the investigation going. It is still an active investigation that we're doing."
Tonya Carpenter works across the street from Guiding Hands School. On the day of the incident, she and her co-workers thought there was an issue on campus.
"We saw the fire trucks and the ambulance and everything pull up and knew that something had happened," she recalled. "But we didn’t think it was as severe as what we were told today."
It was not immediately known what caused the boy's death.
"Right now there is no evidence of foul play or signs of criminal intent," Prencipe told KTXL. "We're putting all the resources into it to make sure that we understand fully what actually happened to get to the bottom of it and just to find the truth."
Guiding Hands released a statement Thursday afternoon:
"It is with heavy hearts that we share the very difficult news that a beloved member of our school community has passed away. Out of respect for the family, and the ongoing investigation, we are unable to share full details at this time.
Unfortunately, on November 28, 2018, there was an incident on campus involving a student in which staff needed to utilize a nationally recognized behavior management protocol to address the situation. After the incident, an emergency ensued and staff immediately alerted paramedics. We have since been informed, the student has passed away.
The appropriate authorities were promptly notified and we continue to cooperate with their inquiries.
We are devastated by this loss and remain committed to the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff."
The California Department of Education told KTXL that it has suspended Guiding Hands' certification and sent a statement, which reads in part:
"As soon as the department heard of this incident, on November 28, CDE began an investigation, and as of December 5, CDE has suspended Guiding Hands School’s certification.
The suspension means the school will not be able to accept additional students. In the meantime, the department is continuing its investigation to see if further action is necessary.
Guiding Hands is a non-public school. This is a private school that educational agencies contract with to serve students with disabilities who are determined to need a more restrictive environment."
Carpenter says her heart breaks for the boy’s family.
"That would be a parent’s worst fear is to think that you drop your kids off for school and they’re at a safe place and they’re there to learn and be educated. But to get some terrible news as hearing that your kid was hurt," Carpenter said.
Former student speaks out
The 13-year-old's death has sparked conversation from former students at the Guiding Hands School, parents with children diagnosed with autism and experts. They have questions as to how something like this could have happened.
Dave Gaines is the CEO of Sacramento Autistic Spectrum and Special Needs Alliance, a nonprofit that works with people diagnosed with autism.
"It is possible that there was nothing done incorrectly or improperly by anyone in this situation. It is possible that there was something done incorrectly or improperly," Gaines said.
Some of the people Gaines' organization has worked with are current and former students at the school.
"It was a school that I'm familiar with and it kind of had that impact upon me like, 'Whoa, that’s something I know about and I know kids there.' And my first thought was, 'Did I know this child?'" Gaines said.
"I would call them an abusive school, honestly," said former student Katie Kaufman.
Kaufman was a student at the school from sixth to eighth grade. She said she remembers being restrained as a form of discipline.
"I mean, you would get upset or something and they would jump on top of you," Kaufman told KTXL. "Even if it was like you got upset and started cursing, or something, they would just jump on top of you right away thinking you were going to start swinging."
Kaufman said she would go home to tell her mother. But after it continued to happen, she said her mother transferred her to another school.
"I stayed in the school until I was in eighth grade when she started seeing things that were happening there," Kaufman said.
"I've had some parents had some very good experiences," Gaines explained. "I've had parents who have had negative experiences. I've had parents who didn’t want to place their child there after they toured the school."
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions, Kaufman said she doesn’t want anyone else to experience what she went through at her former school.
"They should close it down," she said. "Honestly, I’ve thought that for the longest time."