It’s not abuse if the kid’s really bad, right?

September 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm 1 comment

The perfect environment for learning

Imagine living at a school, hundreds of miles from your family, with devices on your limbs and torso to administer electric shock — your teachers walking around with labeled triggers hanging from their belts, ready to administer “level III interventions” at the slightest infraction. And in case their watchful eye isn’t enough, they have the help of  monitors to watch you on camera and report to staff when you break a “behavioral contract.” While this sounds like some sort of Orwellian worst-case scenario, it has been happening in one American school for decades.

In some schools, “student” is just a nice, clean word for “inmate.” Perhaps that is most true at Canton, MA’s Judge Rotenberg Center, a school attended exclusively by those who are emotionally troubled or developmentally challenged (including those with autism and asperger’s syndrome) and exhibiting behavioral problems. Somehow I don’t think their methods, which include electric shock, restraint, seclusion and withholding of food, are the fast track to well adjusted kids.

These methods certainly won’t get to the root of a child’s problems and while you’d think a lot of the school’s time and effort would be spent finding out why these children have trouble controlling aggression and impulses, that’s not how Rotenberg works. From the Village Voice:

One thing you won’t see at the center is traditional psychological counseling. While students do meet with clinicians, there are no regular appointments or group therapy. School literature states that counseling is done “as needed,” but not when it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior, and adds: “The purpose of the counseling is to enhance the student’s cooperation with, and progress within the program.” (emphasis mine)

While mechanical restraints and restrictive diet are common at JRC, it seems the institution’s favored approach is “skin shock” by way of their Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) which they manufacture themselves. It is, simply put, corporal punishment without having to actually hit the victim. From the NY Times:

Just how painful those shocks are has been an area of particular debate. Technically, the lowest shock given by Rotenberg is roughly twice what pain researchers have said is tolerable for most humans, said James Eason, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington and Lee University. The highest shock given by Rotenberg is three times the lowest amount.

It’s not just the most offensive behaviors like violence and self harm that warrant shock at JRC. A child can be shocked for nagging, standing up without permission, swearing, sloppiness, raising his voice, speaking out of turn — any behavior outlined in an individual “behavioral contract” tailor made for each student — even if that behavior is a direct result of the child’s autism or other developmental disability. It is reported that some autistic children, seeing staff members reach toward their belts to shock other students, have screamed from fear that the shock was going to be for them. They were shocked for screaming.

In one event, a former student phoned in pretending to be a staff member. The staff, apparently without questioning this, shocked a student repeatedly for infractions the caller “reported” and on top of that shocked him repeatedly for noncompliance when he protested. By the end of that three hours, he had been shocked 77 times. From the Boston Globe:

… the staff tied Dumas’s son to a board, restraining all four limbs. The teenager, resigned to his fate, said, “Let them know I’m being compliant.”

During the next hour, he received dozens of rapid-fire shocks to his abdomen and limbs, which in fact violated his treatment plan. At one point, he complained, “Mister, I can’t breathe.”

On tape, the staff recounted the reasons for different shocks, including swearing, verbal threats, and noncompliance. Of the two power levels of shock treatments used by the school, Dumas’s son received the most powerful each time, school officials have said.

Shift supervisor Michael Thompson, on the job for two months, left the room at one point, saying he wanted to “either cry or throw up,” the report said.

This, as seems to be the case with most things lately, is the tip of the iceberg so I’ll leave you with excerpts and links to more involved reports on Rotenberg by people who have visited. It is nothing short of abuse and it seems more true than ever that abuse can be tolerated by the public if you find a way to call it therapy. It is not therapy and cannot be said to “work” simply because it reduces the unwanted behaviors on a list. These children are likely to live their lives knowing only limitations, anxiety and fear of reprisal. I don’t know that any one institution is likely to produce a greater number of broken and fearful “students” than Rotenberg.

The NY State Education Departments findings:

•The Contingent Food Program and Specialized Food Program may impose unnecessary risks affecting the normal growth and development and overall nutritional/health status of students subjected to this aversive behavior intervention.

•The collateral effects (e.g., increased fear, anxiety or aggression) on students resulting from JRC’s punishment model are not adequately assessed, monitored or addressed.

Mother Jones: “School of Shock”

Rotenberg staff place the more troubled (or troublesome) residents on 1:1 status, meaning that an aide monitors them everywhere they go. For extremely violent students, the ratio is 2:1. Soon after I arrived, right before I set off on my tour, a small crowd gathered—it seemed that almost the entire hierarchy of the Rotenberg Center was going to follow me around. That’s when I realized I’d been put on 5:1.
abellve: JRC founder, Matthew Israel responds in the comments section as does MFI’s David Oaks

Boston Magazine: The Shocking Truth

Soon after that, Israel’s commune fell apart. As did a second he started in the South End…But he wasn’t ready to give up. He thought if he opened a school, he could provide the commune’s inhabitants with jobs. A self-sustaining economy might lead, ultimately, to utopia.

The Judge Rotenberg Center’s Website

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1 Comment

  • 1. Leah  |  September 19, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks Aaron as always for speaking out about these human rights abuses…
    your words are much appreciated. I have always been appalled by this place and can’t understand why it is allowed to operate. This is torture pure and simple.


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