‘School of Shock’ Under Federal Investigation

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More than two years after Mother Jones published a groundbreaking investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a private school in Massachusetts that uses electric shocks to discipline its mentally retarded and autistic students, the federal government is finally looking at the school. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division says it has opened a “routine investigation” (PDF) of the Rotenberg Center in response to a September 2009 letter signed by 31 disability organizations that contended the school violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“The initial response of the Department of Justice was that they didn’t believe that they could take action because they didn’t believe they had jurisdiction over privately operated facilities,” wrote Nancy Weiss of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. “I suggested to them that they consider jurisdiction under the ADA on the basis that people with disabilities are being treated in ways that are neither legal nor would be tolerated if applied to people who do not have disabilities.” Weiss reported that the DOJ couldn’t give her an estimate on how long their investigation would take.

This is far from the first time the Rotenberg Center has come under fire for its controversial punishments, called “aversives” which include food restriction, isolation, and physical restraints. Because some children from District of Columbia attend the residential school, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee called for an investigation into the center in 2007, and Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce has introduced several laws to ban the use of electric shock devices on students. This is not to mention a damning investigation by the New York State Education Department and statements by then-Governor Elliot Spitzer that the school was “wrong” and he would pull New York students if possible. This could be disastrous for the Rotenberg Center as New York state supplies, and funds, many of the school’s out-of-state students. More recently, JRC was fined tens of thousands of dollars for allowing 14 unlicensed clinicians to label themselves “psychologists.” Although the House Education and Labor Committee recently introduced a bill that would ban the use of restraints on students, and another which would establish an abuse reporting system for residential schools which could potentially apply to the Rotenberg Center, this is the first real federal attention the school has received. And while disability rights groups are celebrating the DOJ’s investigation, if the DOJ decides in the JRC’s favor, it will be a major setback. Wrote Weiss, “We can only keep our fingers crossed that this is the first step in righting a long history of wrongs.”

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