School of Shock

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

That caution also applies to the automatic shocking devices that the facility sometimes uses. A child who tears his hair out might be told never to put his hands to his head. He might be instructed not to even raise his hands from his sides. To enforce this rule, the center in some cases will rig plastic holsters to the student's hips. He has to keep his hands in the holsters. If he lifts his hands out of them, a device automatically shocks him, and keeps shocking him at one-second intervals until he puts his hands back. The rationale behind the device is that punishment must be immediate to be effective.

But after some serious incidents the student is not punished right away. For example, when a student attacks a staff member in a life-threatening manner, "we don't go to the cops," says Israel. "We don't do that." Instead, Rotenberg Center officials keep both crime and punishment in-house: The student has his hands and feet restrained and is then shocked five times, at random intervals, over a period that can last up to 30 minutes.

Sometimes, the student gets shocked for doing precisely what he's told. In a few cases where a student is suspected of being capable of an extremely dangerous but infrequent behavior, the staff at Rotenberg won't wait for him to try it. They will exhort him to do it, and then punish him. In these behavior rehearsal lessons, staff members will force a student to start a dangerous activity—for a person who likes to cut himself, they might get him to pick up a plastic knife on the table—and then shock him when he does.

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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Automatic devices, lengthy shocking sessions, and behavior rehearsal lessons are not what typical students receive. Israel says that among the students who get skin shocks, the average is one zap a week. Rarely does someone get shocked as often as 15 times a day, but Israel wouldn't be embarrassed if they did. He's sure it works, recalling one of his toughest cases—a kid who made himself vomit constantly and was at risk of starving to death. "I mean, his life was saved," Israel says. "If we hadn't had the GED, I don't know how we would have kept him alive."

But the GED isn't only used when a life is at stake, or when a student hurts himself or another, but also for "noncompliance" or "simple refusal." "We don't allow individuals just to stay in bed all day," says Dr. Robert von Heyn, a Rotenberg clinician, in a video for parents. "We want to teach people. So we may use the GED to treat noncompliance." Other behavior that doesn't appear dangerous also could earn a zap. While it might seem excessive to shock a student for nagging his teacher, Israel asks, what if the kid nags all the time, every minute, every day? The nagging interferes with his learning, so he can't learn self-control and develop normally. JRC's choice is to shock him, stop the nagging, and let him learn.

Every inch of the Rotenberg facilities is under constant surveillance. Even the people watching the screens are themselves on camera.
photo: David Yellen
Amid the black leather couches and abundant glass sculptures in Israel's office, a curious collection of boutique kaleidoscopes is displayed on the coffee table. Peering into each tube, watching the crystals shift together and apart, you see the picture constantly changing. Whether it looks like chaos or beauty depends on the beholder. The decor is fitting: Israel knows that outsiders and laypeople get upset when they see kids getting shocked at JRC, but he says that's because they don't understand the true impact of what they witness. A half-century ago Israel was the one laboring to clear the picture, a college student shifting the shards of 1950s Cold War ideological struggle for an explanation of human behavior, with its stark choice between Communist materialism and democratic capitalism. He discovered another option. "Skinner said a man isn't good or evil," Israel recalled of the philosophy that inspired him. "He's what he's made by his environment and his genetics. . . . Human behavior is lawful."

Before B.F. Skinner, a lot of psychology concerned itself with understanding how the inner workings of the mind affect the way people act. Skinner thought this approach was nonsense; he believed that it was neither possible nor necessary to know what was going on in someone's head; all that mattered was behavior. He wasn't the first psychologist to adopt a behavioral approach, but he took it further than his predecessors. He argued that people's behaviors were purely the product of their environment, specifically of a process called "operant conditioning," in which the consequences of our action determine whether we repeat it: If it's rewarded, we do it again; if not, we stop.

The experiment that most clearly illustrated this was the so-called Skinner Box, a cage in which a rat had a bar to press. If Skinner awarded a food pellet when the rat pushed the bar, the rat would push it again. As Skinner changed the pattern of awards, the rat's behavior changed. Skinner extrapolated the logic of the Skinner Box to society as a whole, believing that all human suffering could be eased through the application of proper conditioning, and even penned a utopian novel in 1948, Walden II, that depicted such a world.

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