This month’s Mother Jones Magazine (Sept/Oct) features a cover story by Jennifer Gonnerman about the Judge Rotenberg Center, a controversial school in Boston for very troubled and autistic kids that, for $200 grand of public money, per child, uses so-called aversive therapy in the form of electric shocks delivered to the skin, to control difficult-to-handle kids that most schools don’t want to take. The shock gizmos are sometimes attached to the kid in the form of a back pack, as with the boy above. Sometimes the things are attached to legs, or arms, or multiple places on the body. “That way the kids have more trouble getting the devices off,” explained a staff member.
I don’t know Gonnerman personally, but I’m very familiar with her work. She is generally known as a fine and very solid reporter. Her wonderful book, Life on the Outside, was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I like her writing for a lot of reasons—one of them being because she’s a Crusader Rabbit type, like me. I also have found her to be smart, thorough and fair minded. In other words, I’ve never sensed her shaving the dice as she digs for the facts.
I bring this up because, with her new “School of Shock” article, she has unleashed a storm of criticism from the school’s founder, Mathew Israel, who—in addition to his own op ed printed here—has contacted various other news outlets, NPR included, in an effort to discredit Gonnerman and her report.
Gonnerman tried the shocks herself and describes them as brief but very, very painful (think hoard of very pissed off wasps stinging you one after the other, all in the same place). The shocks are used, according the former staff members and by Gonnerman’s own observation, as a routine tool of discipline, but not just to control dangerous and self-destructive behavior. It seems children were shocked if they nagged, or swore, or didn’t sit when they were supposed to sit. An autistic student stood up and politely asked to go to the bathroom….and was shocked.
Every inch of the school is under surveillance—which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet, even the watchers are themselves watched on camera. Former staff complain of an oppressive, almost paranoid environment, where they were asked to sign very agressive confidentiality agreements that are binding even after they leave the school’s employment. The agreements do not just pertain to the students—whose privacy must certainly be protected, certainly—but also to the methods used at the school. Since the school is operating with public money, one wonders why the secrecy.
Former staff say they were also encouraged to rat each other out, and told never to engage in personal conversations either with students or each other. All this may be perfectly fine and appropriate as a management strategy for staff dealing with unruly children…..but it doesn’t sound fine.
Last year, the AP reported that the state of New York pays $50 million a year to the center to care for 150 disabled New York youths. (According to my calculator, that means Rotenberg is charging—not $220,000 but $333,333 per student.) The AP also reports that New York is considering no longer sending children to the facility because of concerns about the style of treatment. Yet, thus far, despite its NY state’s own recent resoundingly negative report….they are still sending kids..
As I read Gonnerman’s article (which is worth reading all the way through; be sure you get to the part about Connie Chung), one of the things that stood out to me is that, in addition to the shocks and the behavior mod treatment—according to unhappy parents, and Gonnerman, these kids are receiving little in the way of psychological counseling— although there are several licensed psychologists listed on the staff roster. The notion of only using shocks, without the addition of positive therapeutic techniques to help kids undo their internal emotional knots, is rather disturbing.
You might successfully train planaria that way, but that’s not how you heal children.
This 2006 report from the New York State Education Department, describes how, rather than using the shocks as a short term aversive therapy fix, (which is worrisome enough) students are kept on the skin-shock program for years….and years.
The NYDE report also notes that the school routinely nixes other other kinds of therapies—language, occupational and counseling—from kids’ programs. In addition, says the New York report, there appears to be no effort to gradually “fade” (as the report puts it) kids into a less restrictive environment.
So what is one to make of a program that shocks and punishes kids into submission? It might relieve the short term worries of scared parents who are at the end of their rope with a violent kid. But does it ever result in functioning, socialized humans? This is by no means clear.
Look, I’ve never had to find a way to deal with a violent, emotionally damaged child who is my own. My heart goes out to any parent facing that heartbreak. But everything I know about dealing with violent, damaged animals—or heavily armed adolescents, for that matter—tells me that this course that the school is pursuing is abusive and, in the end, produces no positive outcome other than the cessation of the violent behavior withing a highly controlled environment. You don’t get good, well socialized dogs (or horses, or whatever animal you can name) through punishment and abuse. You may succeed in breaking the dog’s will and stopping his barking or biting or whatever. But you won’t have much of a dog at the end of it.
There is, by the way, only one California kid going to the Rotenberg Center. His name is Benny Walker.
“Benny is one of about 15,000 California students with disabilities so severe that public schools cannot meet their needs,” writes the San Diego Tribune. “Instead, they attend private schools at public expense.” The state pays between $35,000 to 70,000 a year for private education of such children. Except in Benny’s case:
Because of legal mandates, San Diego Unified and other public agencies are paying the bill. Benny’s tuition and housing at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, where an aide is assigned to him full time, cost more than $270,000 for the 2006-07 school year. The cost since 2005 has been $732,930.
That’s $366,000 a year, for shocking and restricting and feeding a kid. Even the California juvenile justice system only estimates their cost at $65,000 a kid. Where in the world do you suppose all the rest of that money goes?
Look, for all I know, the school’s founder, Matthew Israel is a visionary and a saint. But somehow I don’t think so.