Special Education

School Using Shock Therapy Under Fire Yet Again

By Nirvi Shah — May 10, 2012 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than 225,000 people are beseeching Massachusetts school that has used shock therapy for years to stop the practice, noting that some groups including officials from the United Nations have called the practice torture.

The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass. is a residential school for students with disabilities and behavior problems. Many of the students who attend have been placed there by school districts in Massachusetts and other states who say it is the best option for students they cannot serve.

One of the school’s methods to curb or stop behavior, such as a student’s refusal to eat or their violent tendencies, is through shock treatment developed by the school’s former director. In a video on the school’s website (choose the first link here) the then-director Matthew Israel, who retired last year, describes the treatment as the equivalent of a two-second bee sting.

Now, former employee Greg Miller, has created an online petition to push for an end to the practice, which has been challenged in court but remains legal. As this 2007 in-depth piece about the school in Mother Jones notes, the school is named after one of the Massachusetts judges who allowed the practice to continue in the 1980s.

The federal Department of Justice launched an investigation into the school two years ago, and the agency has been urged to speed up its work.

Miller said he worked as an aide at the school from 2003 to 2006, while he was studying alternative medical approaches for the treatment of children with learning difficulties and autism. Miller, who had previously been a teacher, now lives in California where he is studying Chinese medicine.

“I went through this change process myself from believing this was a place that could save these students to where I realized there were so many other things they could do and were not doing,” Miller said in an interview with Education Week.

The school says treatment is only used with parents’ consent and only after each student goes through an involved legal process in which they are assigned their own lawyer. A team of therapists evaluates whether the therapy should be considered.

Miller claims that with parents scarce at the school, the shock treatments were used far more frequently than the school maintains, and having experienced a shock during his training, it was far more brutal than a bee sting.

In this (also disturbing) video, which the school battled to keep private, a student who has autism shrieks and begs not to be shocked. Last month, his mother settled a lawsuit against the school out of court.

“I never signed up for him to be tortured, terrorized, and abused,” Cheryl McCollins says on the video about her son, Andre. “I had no idea.”

On Wednesday, Miller delivered the signatures gathered on Change.org to Massachusetts lawmakers. Miller and McCollins met with several legislators including the state’s house speaker.

It isn’t clear whether any of them will be compelled to act. A bill to end the shock treatments has repeatedly passed the state senate, but not the house.

“These parents are desperate,” Miller said of those whose children end up at the center. (Before and after photos and video of students on the school’s website show stark changes between students who have had therapy, and they include one girl who says she volunteered for the treatment.)

“As much as they try to show how much these kids need this electric shock,” Miller said, “there are other methods out there.”

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