Law & Courts

FDA Proposal Would Ban Shock Devices at Residential School

By Christina A. Samuels — April 22, 2016 2 min read
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed a ban on electric aversive devices, following the advice of an expert panel convened by the agency that studied the issue in 2014.

Only one place in the country is believed to be using the devices, the FDA said in announcement of the proposed ban—the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center based in Canton, Mass. The Rotenberg Center enrolls children, youth and young adults ages 5-21 who have autism or emotiona disturbances. Students are referred by school districts and state agencies.

The FDA estimates that 45 to 50 people there are being exposed to so-called “graduated electronic decelerators,” which work by delivering an electric shock through electrodes that are placed on a person’s body. The shocks are intended to stop self-injuries or aggressive behavior. But the FDA said that use of the devices comes with problems that far outweigh any potential benefits: depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, burns, and errant shocks from malfunctioning devices. The FDA rule would remove such devices from the market entirely.

“Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of the individuals who are exposed to these devices,” said Dr. William Maisel, the acting director of the Office of Device Evaluation in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, in a statement. “These devices are dangerous and a risk to public health—and we believe they should not be used.” Instead, the center could use positive behavioral supports and medication for curbing aggression or self-injury, the FDA says.The proposed change would allow for a gradual transition to alternative treatment methods.

Officials at the Judge Rotenberg Center did not return a call for comment. The center’s website features papers written or co-authored by center founder Matthew Israel that claim shock treatment is effective. And in 2014, parents of a student at the center wrote that they believed the center’s behavior program was keeping their daughter alive.

But Israel is a highly controversial figure. In 2011, Israel was indicted on charges that he ordered a video destroyed that showed two students being repeatedly shocked over three hours, at times while they were restrained. The shocks had been ordered by another student who, as a prank, had impersonated a staff member and said that the students had misbehaved earlier in the evening. As a part of the sentencing agreement, Israel stepped down from his leadership position at the school. Last year, however, he was found to be working at two special education schools in California.

The proposed rule will be open for comments for 30 days.

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