Law & Courts

FDA Panel Recommends Banning Shock Devices Used at Residential School

By Christina A. Samuels — April 25, 2014 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A panel of experts has recommended that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban electric aversive devices currently used at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass., a residential and day school for children and adults with emotional and behavioral disturbances, among other disabilities. The center enrolls students from other states, at a cost of more than $200,000 per student, per year.

The devices, called “graduated electronic decelerators,” or GED devices, work by placing electrodes on a student’s body that can be activated by a remote control device. Background information provided to the panel for its April 24 meeting said that the Rotenberg Center is currently the only entity in the country known to be using these devices, which the center has modified to deliver an electric shock almost three times higher than the GED devices that have been cleared for use by the FDA.

The Rotenberg Center has been the subject of several investigations because of its use of the shock devices. Mother Jones magazine wrote a lengthy piece in 2007. A mother sued the school in 2012, saying that her son was restrained and shocked 31 times in one day, a case that was ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum. (That story was covered in New York magazine) The Fox affiliate in Boston has aired footage of the student involved in the lawsuit being restrained and shocked, which was played at the FDA panel’s meeting in Gaithersburg, Md.

Glenda Crookes, the executive director of the center, defended the use of the devices. She told the panel that the children and the adults at the center have “failed” at other treatment centers. “Our parents are often told there are other options. There are not for these families. They’ve all been tried and all failed,” she said.

However, according to the New York article, since 2009 New York has banned the use of shock devices on new students from the state enrolled at the center. (A group of New York parents made an unsuccessful argument to the U.S. Supreme Court that the New York restriction was wrong, and that shock devices were necessary to control their children’s self-injurious behavior.) An investigation by the New York Department of Education found that the shocks are administered for behaviors that are not destructive or dangerous. Students also had psychological side effects, such as fear, aggression and anxiety. Massachusetts has also banned the use of shock devices on its residents, and Medicaid stated in 2012 that it would not provide federal reimbursement to any center that uses shock devices.

“Although the Judge Rotenberg Center says that they use these electric shocks for dangerous and self-injurious behaviors, the vast majority of shocks are used for behaviors like standing up or getting out of your seat or speaking when not spoken to,” University of Delaware professor Nancy Weiss told the Fox affiliate after the meeting. Weiss is the director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, based at the university.

Jennifer Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said that the agency “will consider all available information, including the advisory committee’s input, when considering any future regulatory action. If the FDA decides to move forward with the process to ban the device, we will issue communication to inform manufacturers and the public around the action, including notice in the Federal Register.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.