BOSTON - Controversy has dogged the Judge Rotenberg Education Center since it opened in 1971 because of its use of physical punishment, or aversive therapy, on students. Critics have long maintained that the use of skin shocks and food deprivation are inhumane and potentially abusive.
Prodded by Sen. Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat whose district includes the center’s Canton campus, the state Senate voted this year to ban the use of aversive therapy in Massachusetts.
The measure, included as a rider to the state budget, was eventually dropped. But Joyce vows to continue his fight against the Rotenberg Center by refiling the measure in January, when the next legislative session begins.
‘‘This is the only school in the country using skin shocks on special-needs kids who are autistic or mentally retarded,’’ Joyce said. ‘‘If we used the same skin shock treatment in our prison on Guantanamo Bay, there would be worldwide outrage.’’
Joyce calls skin shock an archaic and cruel form of punishment, and says at least 10 states specifically ban the use of aversive therapy on students. He also faults the level of experience and training of many of the school’s direct care providers, and he believes existing safeguards aren’t enough to prevent abuses of punishments given to students.
Joyce also sees the school’s spending as extravagant.
Among other expenses, the center’s $52.5 million in annual revenues are used to cover founder Matthew Israel’s $334,000-a-year salary, an extensive art collection on display at the school’s two buildings on Route 138 in Canton, and million-dollar legal fees. With 1,000 employees, a large portion of the center’s annual spending goes to wages and salaries.
Meanwhile, New York state, -which sends a substantial number of students to the center, - is reviewing ongoing complaints about the school and its use of aversive therapy.
The mother of a 17-year old New York boy who was allegedly shocked because he cursed is suing the state.
In a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers, her attorney, Kenneth Mollins, said skin shocks were administered to the testicles of one student; to a deaf child for not listening to verbal instruction; for minor reasons such as squinting or moaning.
‘‘I don’t understand how your state allows this to go on,’’ Mollins wrote.
School officials counter that they are repeatedly subjected to distortions, misunderstandings and outright lies.
There are advocacy groups that also want the state to ban aversive therapy.
Fredda Brown, a professor of special education at Queens College at City University of New York, says aversive therapy works only on a short-term basis and is a cruel and unusual punishment.
‘‘We have alternative strategies that are very effective, we have a lot of research and practice that has demonstrated the power and effectiveness of alternatives to aversives,’’ said Brown, who has advised New York state lawmakers hoping to ban the use of aversive therapy on New York children.
Experts can learn how to pre-empt undesirable behavior in children and teach children how to better express themselves using positive reinforcements, Brown said.
‘‘Would you want to have yourself or someone you love experience pain like that, many times of the day, and with the people around you not hearing what you’re trying to express?’’ Brown said.
Polyxane Cobb, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for the Legal Rights of People with Disabilities, said punishments like skin shocks and food deprivation fail to change long-term behaviors in many students.
‘‘They don’t do much to change behavior,’’ said Cobb, who raised a son with severe special needs. ‘‘The kids have been there, many of them for years and years and years. They say the kids get better, but I have seen no evidence that that’s the case.’’
Cobb says she believes the Rotenberg Center has never undergone peer review by qualified experts.
‘‘The (center) has never published in reputable peer-reviewed journals a clinical report that demonstrates the real efficacy of their approach,’’ Cobb said. ‘‘If you employ really intrusive, invasive painful therapies, you had better show the kind of success that justifies putting people through that kind of pain. I don’t want anecdotes, I want evidence.’’
Massachusetts groups that support banning aversive therapy include the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; Center for Public Representation; Federation for Children With Special Needs; e Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation; Coalition for the Legal Rights of People with Disabilities; Mass. Developmental Disabilities Council; Autism National Committee; Central Mass. Families Organizing for Change; Autism Alliance of MetroWest; Disability Policy Consortium; Disability Law Center; Community Resources for People with Autism; Mass. Families Organizing for Change; Mass. Office on Disability; The Arc of Massachusetts; Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts; and Mass. Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee.
The electronic decelerator used at Judge Rotenburg Education Center delivers an electric current of 3 to 45 milliamps. (A milliamp is 1/1000th of an amp.) This is how that compares with other electrical shock devices.
- Electric dog collar 0.2 milliamp
- Brain electroshock therapy 900 milliamps
- Nerve stimulation therapy 1 milliamp
- Taser pistol 1 amp
- Heart defibrillator 1 amp
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