Civil Liberties Education Public Health

Shocking Children


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.


And then there’s the cost:

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.


  • I have neither read, nor heard of a b-mod program approximating anything like this. Perhaps there is a minority group of the intended population (like, maybe 0.0000001%) for whom this treatment-of-last-resort might be appropriate. But, the percentage would be so close to zero as to be statistically indistinguishable from zero. This kind of approach, used on these many kids, with the varying symptom patterns typically associated with the diagnoses mentioned in the article, strikes me as sick. Very, very sick. If I believed Matthew Israel had a soul, I would fear for it.

  • Wow I am also shocked, I thought shock “therapy” went out years ago? This sounds like a throwback to the Victorian era of bloodletting releasing “bad blood” or antiquated methods of using mercury or turpentine for removing head lice.

    Matthew Israel writes
    “Some special needs children referred to JRC have shown self-abusive behaviors such as banging their head to the point of brain damage, biting off their own fingertips, pulling out their teeth, vomiting and refusing food to the point of starvation, biting a hole through their cheek, biting off part of their own tongue, scratching their heel to the point of blood, bone infection and eventual death, breaking their own arm, cutting off their own earlobe with a scissor, running into moving traffic, punching their eyes causing detached retinas and blindness, pulling out their hair to the point of baldness, swallowing x-acto knives, and cutting their skin with a knife so often that the skin becomes too tough to be sutured.”

    I guess he (Matthew Israel) wants to administer the pain himself, I not a psychiatrist/doctor but if a person is already into pain, how is a different pain going to change their behavior.

    All this sounds more like a movie about a Chinese prison, horror, or science fiction.

    Being an electronics engineer I was wondering who manufactures the electrical-shock back packs, are they sold world wide, is there a big market? I have seen the electronic collars used for dogs as part of a virtual electric fence to keep your dog in the yard. I searched the internet for these electrical shock devices but did not find any manufacturers.

  • I agree, this “cure” sounds horrific, but what are other forms of effective treatment for the also horrific stuff Israel writes about? Some of these kids clearly have no limits. Is there any actual treatment for this condition? Any drugs that dull them, sort of like intense Prozac, or schizophrenia drugs which at least render the patient functional?

    As for feeling these shocks: I ran into a fence for keeping cows in, and ouch. That would likely have long-term damage to the nervous system, too. (?)

  • I didn’t see the article on this. Oh, that’s right, it was in “Mother Jones.” I always wondered who read that.

    On the surface and to me personally, shock therapy seems barbaric and ineffective. But, people opposed to it need to have more information in the fight against its use other than their feelings.

    However, now that I know that the government is stupid enough to pay $300,000 per student in this program, I wish to announce the formation of “Woody’s Shock Therapy School for Difficult Children.” Our techniques will consist of having the kids walk across the carpet in low humidity and touch a metal door knob. Nothing beats a static shock for controlling where you go and what you touch. Prices start at the low introductory price of $279,000 per child.

  • Woody was the first graduate of the Shock Therapy Rotenberg Center. After endless shocks and zaps to the nuts, he learned the mental condition of blaming liberals for every American ill.

  • Woody, that means you love to get zapped in the puny testicles – somewhat similar to your GOP buddy- kinky man-Larry Craig.

    For a while there, I was having fun in the Marc Coopers’ Laweekly Blog playing Sen. Larry Craig from big bad ass potato picking Idaho.
    Aside from that, I’ve been working and focusing on a surge of White Supremacist attacks in Orange county.
    This zapping crap is really wrong. These children are not at fault for being born like this and dont deserve controlled or zapped by anyone.
    I hope the people at Rotenberg that support this crap all get hit by lighting bolts.

  • Oprah had a segment on autistic children with Jenny McCartney and other moms of such kids (yikes, I admitted to watching her but honest, it was not a habit~). They brought up “cures” that started with diet, cutting out wheat/glutens/dairy products, as a start. And detoxing the kids of “yeast” which invades their systems. Then about twenty more things to try. It’s a very, very challenging problem with no one solution or even partial remedy. It seems that these kids need a parent who can devote the time and mental energy to researching all the options on the web, so I guess this is what happens when parents can’t handle it. But for this kind of ridiculous money per child, you’d think the institution was trying all that other stuff first.

  • Woody
    If I was able to find you privates, I would kick you in the nuts myself. Call it a Conservative nut kicked – not too hard but not too soft.

  • Poplock, you would be down on the ground begging for mercy before you could get close. I’ve got a circle of some pretty big friends who watch out for me. Watch your threats.

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