‘School of Shock’ Op-Ed Omits Some Details

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The founder of a school that treats some disabled and emotionally troubled students with punitive electric shocks recently published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post about its benefits. The private school, Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), has been criticized by disability rights activists like Laurie Ahearn, who wrote a negative op-ed about the school in the Washington Post the week previous. State legislators in Massachusetts, where the school is located, have been trying to ban the electric shocks for years, but recently have gotten some momentum behind their movement with an international complaint and a federal investigation by the Department of Justice. Mother Jones first covered the JRC, nicknaming it the School of Shock, in a 2007 investigative feature.

In his op-ed, JRC founder Matthew Israel talks about students whose self-mutilating behaviors have been curbed by the shock device, but he doesn’t mention that many students on the shock pack are not such severe cases. One former student, Rob Santana, talked with our reporter in 2007 about his experience with the school’s punitive electric shocks. Rob was out of control, no doubt, but he wasn’t chomping on his own arm or blinding himself. He was cursing, yelling, and dealing with compound diagnoses of ADHD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and OCD. Rob wore a backpack containing the device’s 10-lb batteries and electrodes 24-7, even while showering, so he could be shocked at any moment. And while Israel insists the shock feels like a “hard pinch”, Rob says it “hurts like hell” and even our reporter said it was significantly more painful than a pinch: 2 seconds never felt so long, she said. The painful shocks have been applied for bites and hits, yes, but also for minor infractions like failing to “maintain a neat appearance” and “nagging.” At the JRC, a shockable offense is a shockable offense. When our article was published three years ago, the school had shock packs on about half of its 234 students. Now, the number is 27 of 145.

Israel is also right that the school emphasizes low or no-drug treatment plans. But he doesn’t mention that the school is low on psychiatric counseling or therapy, something that seems strange for a school that has so many emotionally troubled students. In 2007, nearly half of the school’s students were “high functioning,” meaning they were not severely autistic or developmentally delayed and had a certain level of cognitive functioning. The school’s site mentions that any counseling they provide is based on behavior modification and “Parents who believe that a more traditional counseling approach is an essential feature of the program they are seeking for their son or daughter should consider enrolling their child in programs that provide such traditional counseling.”

Israel likes to use the examples of severely autistic students hurting themselves to the point of death to justify the use of his unique shock device, a device that would be illegal if used on prisoners or detainees. Problem is, those severely autistic individuals don’t seem to be the only students he’s shocking. Championing the ability of an adult to deliver painful electric shocks to emotionally troubled and disabled students as young as 9 is a hard sell. It looks uncertain how much longer it’ll last.

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