when you live with a special ed teacher, as one of us does, you listen to a lot of stories—show us a teacher who doesn’t fret over the kids after hours, and we’ll show you a teacher who needs to leave the profession—and after a while, you see how the system works. Overloaded by paperwork, testing, and the sheer numbers of kids before them, teachers lack the wherewithal to help disabled, difficult, and disruptive students—especially those who come to school with problems rooted more in the world around them than in anything inside them. They must, for sheer self-preservation, move those kids out of their classrooms. Off they go into special ed, and, not infrequently, that’s just the beginning of a long journey through program after program in school after school. When you don’t know how to help a kid, the way you help yourself and your school is to make her someone else’s problem.
In other words, education has become triage. Which is why the phrase “No Child Left Behind” has such appeal: We know perfectly well we are leaving children behind, by the millions, but we don’t want to face up to what that means. We seek solace in concepts like “accountability” and “standards;” yet too often, those fair-sounding words are code for nothing more than adding bureaucracy and slashing funds for the kids who need them most. In the end, No Child Left Behind, like quite a few of the education initiatives and trends of the past decade or two—vouchers, charter schools, and most recently Supreme Court-ordered resegregation—is an exercise in making things Someone Else’s Problem. Better that the disruptive students not be in my child’s classroom, that the troubled neighborhood not send its kids to my school, that the beleaguered district not be financed by my tax dollars.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this attitude produces places like the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. Here’s a “school” with a $50 million budget, financed by taxpayers and charged with caring for some of the nation’s most troubled kids—some with severe autism or mental retardation, others with attention deficit or emotional disorders. These kids hardly have uniform problems, but at the Rotenberg Center the “treatment” is largely the same: punishment for deviating from the rules, often via a sci-fi-sounding device called the Graduated Electronic Decelerator, a backpack full of batteries that delivers excruciating shocks to various body parts.
If that sounds disturbing, wait until you read the details that Jennifer Gonnerman’s yearlong investigation unearthed. In the Rotenberg Center’s 36 years of operation, the program has repeatedly been found to torture kids—there is no other word for it—not accidentally, but systematically. One boy was restrained for hours, tied facedown to a board, and shocked again and again by a person he could not see. A girl with the mental capacity of a young child was disciplined dozens of times in a single day after complaining of a tummy ache; she died of a perforated stomach that night. Children as young as nine are shocked for nagging and swearing; besides shock, punishments have at various times included food deprivation—kids are made to “throw a predetermined caloric portion of their food into the garbage”—being forced to inhale ammonia, pinching, slapping, and being bombarded by white noise. Many kids are forbidden from speaking to or playing with each other. This “education center” has no academic instruction except computer self-learning programs. Many teachers—along with some of the staff psychologists—are not certified; their primary interaction with the students consists of rote admonishments that escalate to threats of punishment.
These facts are all, it should be noted, in the public record, available to regulators, lawmakers, courts, journalists, and anyone else who cares to look. (See them yourself at motherjones.com/schoolofshock.) Nevertheless, the Rotenberg Center has not only persisted, but grown, to the point where founder Matthew Israel has been able to pay himself $400,000 a year, hire a phalanx of lobbyists and lawyers, and market his program to parents, school administrators, judges, and corrections staff in multiple states.
It’s a receptive audience: If your mentally disabled child regularly harmed himself and his siblings, if you were going to lose yet another job for taking time off to help your bipolar daughter, if someone promised to save your child—what would you do? If you were the last in a long line of principals and judges confronting a kid no one could handle, wouldn’t you send him to the school of last resort?
The people who reach for Israel’s life preserver are not to blame; they face a crisis to which he offers the only apparent solution. Nor is it enough to be outraged at the regulators who—faced with vicious legal battles and a lobby of desperate parents—have allowed him to continue operating. We all share the responsibility for letting mentally disabled and troubled kids get shoved aside, warehoused, abandoned.
The Rotenberg Center is an extreme. But the culture that allows it to flourish is all of our problem. And for nearly a quarter million dollars per kid per year, can’t we find a better solution?