Torture or treatment?
The Judge Rotenberg Centre is a school in the United States. It has about 200 children and young adults with disabilities and behavioural problems. Students are shocked with electricity to stop bad behaviour. Many people want to see the electric shocks banned. In 2012 the United Nations asked the United States government to investigate the school. Some parents say the electric shocks have improved their children's behaviour. But experts say there are better ways to help children at the school and that electric shocks are a form of torture. Critics of the school would like to see it closed down but the school remains open.
Posted by: Peter Williams, on 07/09/12
"We have failed to protect the students."
News reports of people being tortured with electric shocks are disturbing. They typically occur in countries led by dictators and are universally condemned as inhumane.
But electric shocks are also given to children with a disability at the Judge Rotenberg Centre (JRC) in the United States. The centre claims the electric shocks control destructive behaviour. Many people want to end the controversial practice. But so far legal challenges to close the school have failed.
The school's beginning
The JRC began 40 years ago and takes in children with behavioural problems as full-time residents. The centre accepts children and teenagers with autism, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and a range of psychiatric conditions. A number of students have histories of being abused and abandonment.
In its early days the school used spanking, pinching, water sprays to the face and the inhalation of ammonia to control behaviour. These kinds of treatments are known as aversive therapy.
In the late 1980s the JRC decided stronger punishment was needed. Today students are forced to wear small backpacks, sometimes for 24 hours a day. The backpacks contain a device that creates electric shocks. Electrodes leading from the device are placed on the student's skin. Teachers and supervisors can shock students at any time with a remote control. Some children have been hospitalised due to the effects of the electric shocks.
Former executive director Matthew Israel created the centre. He attended undergraduate classes taught by the famous psychologist Frederic Skinner at Harvard University. There he learned people can be trained, like rats and pigeons, to change their behaviour.
But autism expert Elizabeth Stringer Keefe strongly believes the students must be protected from such practices. She is an assistant professor of graduate special education at Lesley University in the JRC's home state of Massachusetts.
Stringer Keefe told DiVine,
We have failed to protect the students and residents of this school, where there is a long documented history of concerns and dangerous incidents.
The JRC claims electric shocks are needed for the wellbeing of children who harm themselves. Without it they claim students behaviour will cause serious injury.
But a 2006 report by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) found electric shocks were administered to children who had no clear history of self-harm. Students were often shocked for trivial reasons like slouching or stopping school work for more than 10 seconds. The JRC also failed to consider the negative effects of aversive therapy such as fear, anxiety and depression.
The NYSED report also found teachers at the centre were not qualified to teach children with special needs. Stringer Keefe says,
In my view this is one of the most dangerous elements of the practice.
Matthew Israel was also reprimanded in the report for employing unlicensed individuals to act as psychologists at the centre.
I think this deceptive action speaks volumes about the pervasive rogue practices they employ, says Stringer Keefe.
The JRC routinely ignores recommendations that students receive speech therapy and other services that are crucial to their development. Investigators have also found there is almost no attempt to teach social skills at the centre. In fact, students who initiate conversation with peers or teachers can be punished with shocks.
Pressure to close school
In 2012 the UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez contacted the U.S government over concerns about the JRC. Mendez was subjected to electric shocks as a political prisoner in Buenos Aires in 1975. He thinks practices at the centre may amount to torture and be in violation of international law. Mendez has asked the US government to inform him of their findings within two months so he can report the results back to the UN.
But some the parents of students support the treatment used by the JRC. They say it's only used as a last resort when all other treatments fail. They also say the treatment is preferable to drugs that turn their children into zombies. Their testimony has played a large part in keeping the school open.
Critics of the school worry about the long term effects of electric shocks on students.
Severe punishment, such as shock as it is used at JRC, is no longer considered appropriate or ethical, says Stringer Keefe.
Despite many protests from disability rights organisations the JRC continues shocking its students. A public protest movement called
Occupy the JRC is rapidly gaining support to shut the school down. It remains to be seen how long the JRC can hold out against such strong opposition. But the protesters shouldn't get their hopes up too much as the JRC remains in operation after more than 20 years of fierce opposition.
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