Criminal charges filed in death of El Dorado County special needs student

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PLACERVILLE, Calif. (KTXL) -- The El Dorado County District Attorney's Office says criminal charges have been filed in the November 2018 death of a special needs student.

Those who knew Max Benson remember a happy, bright-eyed young boy who loved rocks and talking about his day. But everything changed one Friday in November of last year.

“He went to school alive and healthy and he never made it home alive again,” said family friend Karen Hirsch.

Nearly one year ago, the 13-year-old became unresponsive at school after investigators say a special education teacher restrained the autistic child in a face-down position for nearly two hours.

First responders rushed him to UC Davis Medical Center where Benson died two days later.

“I want people never to forget what an amazing child he was and what a big loss it is. The world lost a really incredible person,” Hirsch told FOX40.

His death put the company that owned and operated the school, Guiding Hands School Inc., under the microscope.

The California Department of Education opened an investigation and one month after the incident, determined staff members used an unnecessary and unreasonable amount of force.

The school had its certification suspended and later closed.

“This case stands out because it resulted in a death and it was unnecessary and improper,” said attorney Seth Goldstein, who is representing Benson’s family.

In the months that followed, El Dorado County detectives also carried out a criminal investigation.

It resulted in the company and three of its former staff members facing felony charges for involuntary manslaughter in connection with Benson’s death. Among those charged are Benson’s special education teacher, Kimberly Wohlwend, his principal, Staranne Meyers, and the school’s executive director, Cindy Keller.

It was a step toward justice for the Benson family and a promise that what happened to Max will never happen again.

“Nothing is going to bring Max back but to have those people who caused his death held accountable for what they did,” Hirsch said. "To not have this happen to another child."

The three defendants were booked and released from jail, according to the sheriff’s office. They will be arraigned in El Dorado County court Wednesday.

According to the DA, if convicted, the women could face up to four years in jail.

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