School of Shock

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

Despite these hints of danger, it's hard for an outsider to detect the risks. Hillary, with long blond hair framing a soft face behind thick glasses, looks like a typical shy teenage girl—clad in baggy clothes, shrugging when introduced to a stranger, concentrating on a game of computer solitaire. It's only when she's out of earshot that you learn what happened at Hillary's last school, in Florida, where she hid in a bush, then tried to slice a staff member's neck with the jagged edge of a broken CD. When she arrived at the school, Hillary stabbed a staffer in the gut with a pencil. "She's very dangerous," says Sue Parker, the school's head of programming. "She could kill someone."

Parker has been at the Rotenberg Center for two decades, and bears scars from students who scratched her; she has had her ribs cracked three times. "We witness the tremendous progress that they've made," she says, explaining her longevity. "And I really think it's the GED," referring to the Graduated Electronic Decelerator, the shocking device's technical name.

Some of the scariest students never need the shocks; according to staff members, the mere threat of an electric jolt alone snaps them into shape. Other students actually ask to be wired up, say staff members, because they witness the improvement their peers make and the privileges they earn. But other kids don't have to ask. As Israel and Parker lead their tour of the facility, a staff member walks to the bathroom leading a kid wearing protective mitts. Every few steps the kid stops, shouts something inarticulate, then moves on. Finally, he makes it to the toilet.

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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"Hmmm," Parker frowns.

"Yes," Israel says, "it might be time for the GED."

One thing you won't see at the center is traditional psychological counseling. While students do meet with clinicians, there are no regular appointments or group therapy. School literature states that counseling is done "as needed," but not when it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior, and adds: "The purpose of the counseling is to enhance the student's cooperation with, and progress within the program." You also won't see most students on psychiatric drugs, even though many arrive at the school having tried several of them (one patient had been on 29 different meds) and suffering from side effects like tremors. Israel sees those meds as tools for warehousing students, not treating them.

What you do see here is a lot of color—an avalanche of it. The reception area is full of oversize lime-green chairs, and the walls are hung with bold glass renderings of blooming flowers. All over the school are couches and chairs in pink and yellow, overstuffed and inviting. The walls in the main building are covered top to bottom with bright prints of flowers, while in the newly refinished classroom building the hallways are painted a pleasing dark green. The splashes of color give JRC a lively feel. But there are no traditional classrooms. Each student works on an individualized program that is computer-based; there are no teachers writing math on blackboards or lecturing on American history.

Each classroom, however, is slightly different because JRC students exhibit a range of abilities and behaviors. In a classroom of lower-functioning students, one of the girls can't stop bouncing up and down, and her peers wear mitts to prevent scratching or grunt instead of talk. But down the hall, a higher-functioning class has kids studying chemistry and a girl named Fatima who's starting a job at Bertucci's that afternoon. Other rooms are "alternative learning centers," where extra staff is on hand to monitor kids who are too unruly for regular classes; there are mats on the floor and restraints at the ready because the students are so often wrestled down or bound to a chair.

But in every class the logic of the Skinner Box comes into play. There are rewards for acting the right way. Kids wear cards on their belts, where they collect tokens for good behavior, hard work, or adhering to a "contract" to sit still for a few minutes or get through the morning without acting out. Most classrooms have a "reward box" full of goodies like puzzles and games that the kids can take home, and a "reward corner" where deserving students can watch cartoons for a few minutes at a time. There's also a dazzling "reward room," equipped with a pool table and arcade games, to which the well behaved earn entrance, as well as a "contract store" where students can buy DVDs or handbags with points they've earned for staying on track. Pizza parties, weekly field days, and less restrictive housing placements are also part of its positive programming. There's even a "whimsy room," a magical-looking chamber with color-crowded walls, a cartoonishly enormous chandelier out of a Dr. Seuss book, and a grand table with high-backed chairs made of clear plastic laced with color. The room, which exists for parties, looks like a designer's attempt to paint a picture of fun.



Samantha Shear,an autistic 13-year-old, used to hit herself so hard she detached her retinas.
photo: David Yellen
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