State Officials Respond to Mother Jones’ “School of Shock” Story, Call the Judge Rotenberg Center “Inhumane”


Jennifer Gonnerman’s yearlong investigation for Mother Jones into the Judge Rotenberg Center—a taxpayer-funded “school” that takes autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally disturbed kids from eight states and Washington D.C. and punishes them with electric shocks—is eliciting strong statements from state officials.

The first is from Massachusetts state Senator Brian A. Joyce and Representative John W. Scibak; Joyce has been trying for years to shut the Rotenberg Center down:

Senator Brian A. Joyce and Representative John W. Scibak are calling for the immediate passage of legislation that would strongly regulate the use of “aversive” therapy on children in light of a new report highlighting the practices of a Massachusetts-based school now infamously known as the “school of shock.”

In the September edition of the national magazine Mother Jones, the reporter, who spent a year researching the article and interviewing Judge Rotenberg Center founder and director Matt Israel, refers to the schools as a high school version of Abu Ghraib and describes heartbreaking stories of children (some as young as 9-years-old) being painfully shocked by accident, shocked for swearing or being shocked over decades for the same behavior.

Eight states (including Massachusetts) send children with autism, mental retardation, ADD, ADHD and emotional problems to the Canton-based school that punishes them with food deprivation and powerful electric shocks. JRC currently treats about 230 children and brings in annual revenues exceeding $56 million.

Massachusetts legislators have been working with disability advocates for over twenty years to ban the use of shock (aversive) therapy with little results.

Senator Joyce and Representative Scibak recently filed two bills to safeguard and delineate a narrow range of behavior problems where aversive therapy may be appropriate and would address many of the egregious scenarios described in the article such as children being painfully shocked for swearing.

The bills are the culmination of hundreds of hours of work and discussions between behavior analysts and the psychological community, legislators, and disability and civil rights advocates.

“We believe that it is government’s fundamental duty to protect our most innocent and vulnerable populations,” said Senator Joyce noting that prominent behavior-modification experts, including some cited by Matt Israel, call the JRC ineffective and outmoded. The Canton-based school is in Senator Joyce’s district.

And this is from New York State Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman who represents Brooklyn (52nd District), home to several of the kids sent to the Rotenberg Center:

As the author of New York State’s Billy’s Law, which led to on-site visits and inspections of a score of out-of-state residential treatment facilities, I was encouraged by your recent article describing the non-professional practices at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Massachusetts. The so-called treatment of mentally retarded, autistic
and bipolar youngsters, which consists of electric shock treatment, specialized food programs (i.e. the withholding of food), the lack of sufficient academic and special education instructions, and the limited provision of related services, all contribute to the inhumane conditions that exist at the center. To subject our most vulnerable children to months and even years of such treatments, is an extreme and inhumane form of intervention, not based on current research. Thank you for shedding light on this controversial institution.

We’ll keep you posted about what other elected officials are saying and doing (the story has been sent to all pertinent Congressional delegations and state representatives, so you can follow up too) about the Rotenberg Center. Meanwhile, you can read all about it here.

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