School of Shock

Inside a school where mentally disturbed students are jolted into good behavior

For their last field day of summer, the students of the Judge Rotenberg Center, a private boarding school for special-education students in Canton, Massachusetts, have gotten lucky; it is an exquisite afternoon. As cars whiz by the two-building complex, the late-September sun gleams off the basketball backboard and young bodies jostle for position on the asphalt court below. The playground in the middle of the parking lot is empty, but won't be for long: Students who earned their way out of the classroom for good behavior or class performance will get, as reward, a smooth ride on the school's newly assembled swing set.

The only thing that sets these students apart from kids at any other school in America—aside from their special-ed designation—is the electric wires running from their backpacks to their wrists. Each wire connects to a silver-dollar-sized metal disk strapped with a cloth band to the student's wrist, forearm, abdomen, thigh, or foot. Inside each student's backpack is a battery and a generator, both about the size of a VHS cassette. Each generator is uniquely coded to a single keychain transmitter kept in a clear plastic box labeled with the student's name. Staff members dressed neatly in ties and green aprons keep the boxes hooked to their belts, and their eyes trained on the students' behavior. They stand ready, if they witness a behavior they've been told to target, to flip open the box, press the button, and deliver a painful two-second electrical shock into the student at the end of the wire.

Surveying the seemingly cheery outdoor scene is the school's founder and executive director, Matthew Israel. A trim 73-year-old with a head of curling white hair, Israel wears a gray sports coat over a black shirt and black-and-white-striped tie. The Harvard-educated psychologist speaks in soft tones, but he offers a full-throated defense of the skin shock treatments provided by his school, which Israel says derive from the teachings of his mentor, the famous and controversial behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner.

A resident at the Rotenberg Center for 18 years, Matthew Slaff, 35, has autism.
photo: David Yellen
A resident at the Rotenberg Center for 18 years, Matthew Slaff, 35, has autism.


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Israel has about 230 "clients"—full-time students at the Rotenberg Center—who are mentally retarded, developmentally disabled with diseases like autism, or have been diagnosed with ailments such as depression, schizophrenia, or conduct disorder. Most come to this complex south of Boston from New York, but some travel from as far away as California. Many of them come not in spite of the skin shocks, but because of them. The Judge Rotenberg Center or JRC is the only school in the country that uses that type of behavioral therapy, and has come under fire from those who find its techniques cruel and unusual.

"They don't really understand," Israel says of critics who oppose his use of painful physical punishments—called "aversive stimuli"—to control behavior. "The students with whom we use the skin shock are students who can't be served anywhere else."

Over the past 35 years, Israel has repelled several attempts by regulators and legislators to shut his school down, and has grown to become not only a practitioner of aversive methods but also their champion. Now, yet again, he has a fight on his hands—this time with New York state government. New rules that the New York State Board of Regents adopted this summer on an emergency basis (and could make permanent later this month) ban the use of aversive stimuli—a range of tactics that includes not just skin shocks, but also slapping, ice applications, pinching, strangling, noxious smells and tastes, withholding food, and sleep deprivation—on New York students, even those who travel to Massachusetts to attend the Rotenberg Center.

But the Regents rules won't put Israel out of business, because the regulations allow exceptions for kids who pose a real danger to themselves or others, and for whom all other therapies fail. Opponents of aversive stimuli continue to fight for a total ban. "We are talking about the torture of school children," wrote State Senator Richard Gottfried in a letter to the Regents in August. "If we discovered that these regulations were in place at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, no one would have to demand Donald Rumsfeld's resignation."

Meanwhile, Israel wants the loophole opened even wider, to give the Rotenberg Center the freedom to impose its methods on children it deems in need. He recalls some of the children he has treated at JRC—kids who slapped themselves into blindness, or were so violent that a scrum of staff members struggled to hold them down. He remembers patients who rammed their heads onto tables or reached into their rectums to make themselves bleed. Israel claims that the sting of skin shocks made those kids better. In fact, he contends, the pain saved their lives.

Every inch of the Rotenberg Center's two buildings, the play area outside, and the student residences scattered around the area is monitored at all times by surveillance cameras. A team of employees watches the broadcasts from these cameras, and the people watching the cameras are observed by other cameras. The monitors look out for staff abuse and evaluate employees following every shift, to make sure students' treatment plans are followed. Some use the cameras to follow specific students who've been deemed particularly dangerous. Signs of the skin shock treatment are everywhere; the students have their backpacks near at all times, and a staff member might have as many as seven triggers hanging from his or her belt at any given moment.

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