School of Shock in Massachusetts

Mother Jones has an alarming article about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Canton, Massachusetts, 20 miles outside Boston.

The facility, which calls itself a “special needs school,” takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab.

The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. Over its 36-year history, six children have died in its care, prompting numerous lawsuits and government investigations. Last year, New York state investigators filed a blistering report that made the place sound like a high school version of Abu Ghraib. Yet the program continues to thrive—in large part because no one except desperate parents, and a few state legislators, seems to care about what happens to the hundreds of kids who pass through its gates.

The article describes how its director, Matthew Israel (who, incidentally, personally earns $400,000 for running this house of horrors), began his career as a Harvard educated Skinnerian, and extended the ideas of radical behaviour modification to include high-voltage electroshock – often without warning – as a way of controlling otherwise out-of-control youth. His “students” not only include those who are mentally impaired as described in the quotation above. Children who are “high functioning,” but diagnosed with ADHD, or post-traumatic stress disorder from abuse, or children of drug-addicted parents who suffer consequential emotional distresses, are also sent to the “school of shock.” And, consistent with other abuses in the psychiatric system, “the majority of these students … grew up in the poorest parts of New York City.

The supposed scientific justification for Matthew Israel’s practices are also typical of other psychiatric propaganda. The article describes the pseudo-science behind Israel’s sales pitch:

To defend his methods, he points to a bibliography of 110 research articles that he’s posted on the Rotenberg Center website. This catalog seems impressive at first. Studied more closely, however, it is not nearly so convincing. Three-quarters of the articles were published more than 20 years ago. Eight were written or cowritten by Lovaas, the ucla-affiliated behaviorist. One of America’s leading autism experts, Lovaas long ago stopped endorsing painful aversives. And Lovaas’ old studies focus primarily on children with autism who engage in extreme self-injury—not on troubled teens who have been diagnosed with adhd or add.

But then, it would be hard for Israel to find contemporary research supporting his program, because the practice of treating self-abusive kids with pain has been largely abandoned. According to Dr. Saul Axelrod, a professor at Temple University and an expert on behavior modification, “the field has moved away from painful stimuli because of public outcry and because we’ve devised better techniques,” including determining the cause of an individual’s self-abuse.

Another expert Israel cites several times is Dr. Brian A. Iwata, a consultant on the development of sibis, the device Israel modified to create his ged. Now a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Florida, he’s a nationally recognized authority on treating severe self-abuse among children with developmental disabilities. Iwata has visited the Rotenberg Center and describes its approach as dangerously simplistic: “There appears to be a mission of that program to use shock for problem behaviors. It doesn’t matter what that behavior is.” Iwata has consulted for 25 states and says there is little relationship between what goes on at Israel’s program and what goes on at other facilities. “He may have gotten his Ph.D. at Harvard, but he didn’t learn what he’s doing at Harvard. Whatever he’s doing, he decided to do on his own.”

Even a fellow Skinnerian has trouble with Matthew Israel’s program: “He’s a very smart man, but he’s an embarrassment to his profession,” [former student of B.F. Skinner, Paul] Touchette says. “I’ve never been able to figure out if Matt is a little off-kilter and actually believes all this stuff, or whether he’s just a clever businessman.

There have been several attempts by legislators to shut down the Rotenberg Center. However, there are some parents who aggressively support Israel and his dubious, and sometimes life-threatening practices. These are the parents who have given up on their out-of-control children, and apparently like the fear-induced docility that the repeated electroshock punishments induce.

Additionally, employees are not exempt from the extreme surveillance and punishment regimen, either.

Staff members are prohibited from having casual conversations with each other. … Israel says. “So we’ll sometimes actually have one staffer deliberately start a social conversation with another and we’ll see whether the other—as he or she should—will say, ‘I don’t want to discuss that now.'” Monitors watch these setups on the surveillance cameras and punish staffers who take the bait.

Former employees describe a workplace permeated with fear—fear of being attacked by students and fear of losing their job. There are so many rules—and so many cameras—it’s not easy to stay out of trouble. Employees quit or are fired so often that two-thirds of the direct-care employees remain on the job for less than a year.

Matthew Israel even used intimidation techniques against Jennifer Gonnerman, the reporter who wrote the Mother Jones story, relating how CBS’s Connie Chung was preemptively ambushed in the mass media before her exposé on the facility was broadcast.

For anyone who believes electroshock as behaviour modification and punishment – which is essentially what is practised today in many psychiatric facilities around the world –  is gone, read School of Shock.

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1 comment so far

  1. chris l on

    I have no affiliation with this school but I do know that their use of skin shock deterrent (not the same thing as ECT), while unusual and controversial, is used specifically for the reason that they want to avoid using drugs. They take, the most difficult students, usually after they have been expelled, declined admission, or were heavily sedated elsewhere. Parents apply to have their children admitted, and it’s competitive. Many of these kids have run out of options. I am curious, since you are so opposed to their methods, what is your alternative suggestion? I can’t imagine it would be to use more medication, or restraints, and most of these kids behavior is so out of control, there has to be something to keep them from hurting themselves or others, and to enable them to function in a learning envrionment. I am very interested to hear your thoughts, because this is not an easy case. It’s easy to criticize other’s methods, it’s harder to propose viable alternatives.


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