NYC Skips ‘School of Shock’


New York City’s Department of Education has stopped recommending that special education students enroll at a residential school in Massachusetts that uses skin shocks to control behavior, a top DOE official testified at a City Council hearing Thursday.

Linda Wernikoff, the Deputy Superintendent for Special Education, also told the council that on at least one occasion, the City of New York had recommended to the State Education Department that an out-of-state school be taken off the state’s approved list. But Wernikoff, consulting with a DOE lawyer, refused to name the school, prompting one councilmember to raise the possibility of a subpoena.

The hearing was about a city version of Billy’s Law, a state measure that requires the state to pay closer attention to—and avoid sending students to—the out-of-state facilities where some 1,400 New York State students attend school and live, all on the taxpayer’s dime. The law is named after Billy Albanese, a Brooklyn man with traumatic brain injury who was allegedly abused in a string of facilities to which New York State sent him.

But much of the discussion concerned the Judge Rotenberg Center, a school in Canton, Massachusetts that uses skin shocks to control behavior in students diagnosed with mental retardation, autism, or psychiatric problems. After a parent of a JRC student filed a lawsuit alleging that her son was mistreated at JRC, the state inspected and claimed that the school was using skin shocks—which in theory are clinically appropriate in extreme cases, say many psychologists—too often, with inadequate training, and for the wrong behaviors. JRC officials deny the claims, and say the state inspectors were biased.

Wernikoff said that in the past six months, the city DOE has not recommended that any students go to JRC. But she did not say this was a decision based on an objection to JRC’s methods. Instead, Wernikoff said that thanks to Billy’s Law, more beds were available for placements in state.

Yet over those same six months, three NYC parents insisted on sending their kids there. And 104 New York City students remain at the school. When the allegations surfaced against JRC, city schools informed parents with students there and let them choose whether to withdraw their children. According to Wernikoff, only three did. That’s not surprising: Many parents with students at JRC believe the skin shocks are all that’s keeping their self-destructive loved ones alive.

Education Committee chairman Robert Jackson didn’t threaten to subpoena the name of that school, saying he’d wait to hear from the DOE, which promised to evaluate whether it could release the name without violating any confidentiality rules.