School of Shock

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


image
The GED, or Graduated Electronic Decelerator, sends a two-second jolt into a student�s skin. It�s painful but does no lasting damage, the Rotenberg Center contends.
photo: David Yellen
Albany's recent regulatory attention to his practices puzzles Israel. "It isn't as if we just started to do something unusual," Israel says. "We've been doing the service since the 1970s for New York." So why is the state only acting now?

People on all sides of the debate over aversives ask the same question. New York showed some concerns about the school's approach in the '70s and '80s; the state balked at paying for the school until parents sued. But it wasn't until this summer—with a lawsuit in the mix—that the New York State Education Department moved to regulate the use of aversive techniques on its students. (While the Rotenberg Center is the only place where New York students get skin shocks, two private preschools that New Yorkers attend—one near Albany and the other in Maine—use noxious tastes like lemon juice to punish kids.) The New York State Office of Mental Health bars any aversive techniques. Eleven other states already ban or restrict aversive therapies. And while psychologists largely support the validity of aversive methods, practitioners generally believe that such techniques must be used sparingly and very carefully. But only now is New York attempting to control their use.

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.

Rebecca Cort, who oversees special-education placements for the state education department, says the need for rules only became apparent in 2005 when New York did a routine inspection of the institution. "A much higher number and percentage of students who were coming from New York State were being placed on aversive intervention," she says. That's partly because in the past couple years, the number of New Yorkers going to the school has swelled—but not necessarily because their behaviors led other schools to pass on them. "It was that the in-state beds were full," Cort says. "They were getting a larger number of students because of a lack of capacity in New York State."

Cort says the state is trying to build beds here, prodded by the legislature to do so. The alleged abuse of a New York man named Vito "Billy" Albanese, who'd suffered a traumatic brain injury, in a New Jersey facility a few years ago prompted state lawmakers in 2005 to pass the so-called "Billy's Law," which tries to tilt special- education placements toward in-state facilities.*** That's how the new regulations have to be seen—not just regulating Rotenberg, but erecting a framework for someday treating some of the worst behavioral disorders within New York's borders.

Given that context, some say the Regents have built a flawed framework. The New York State Psychological Association says the rules "effectually legalize corporal punishment." More than one New York school district is being sued for the use of "time-out rooms," but the new rules permit them. And there's not much confidence that the state education department—which only last year was found to have put residents at its School for the Blind in "immediate jeopardy to individual's health or safety"—is up to the task of handling people who, had they gone to the Rotenberg Center, would have received the treatment of last resort.

Schools using skin shock could open here. Or the Rotenberg Center could move to New York State, an option Israel says he has considered. But even though Cort says there's no move to take the Rotenberg Center off the approved list of out-of-state facilities, Israel claims the state's education department now discourages parents from placing their children with him. Even if he had a branch of JRC inside New York, Israel acknowledged by e-mail, the hostility toward the Rotenberg Center would not change. And so, unless lawmakers or regulators stop his practices, Israel and his school will remain where they are, and the shocks will continue.


See also:
Is Shocking Kids Really So Shocking?
An open thread in Power Plays


**Editor's note: This paragraph was inadvertently left out of the print version of this story. It was added to the online version on 10.11.06.
Return to the article.

***This sentence has been corrected; it originally said Albanese was mentally retarded.
Return to the article.

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