When It’s OK to Shock Kids (Take 2)


As the Voice and PowerPlays have been reporting, New York State education officials have been working since June on new rules to restrict the use of “aversive therapies” like skin shocks on special education students. Temporary rules passed in July infuriated both defenders and opponents of the practice, which uses pain to dissuade students from hurting themselves, attacking others, or engaging in other targeted behaviors. After months of delay, the New York State Board of Regents has just published a proposed final rule which it plans to vote on—with no hearing for public comment—in January. And once again, the rules appear to make no one happy. Depending on whom you ask, the state either lets school shock too often, or not often enough.

That’s not surprising, since the two sides of the debate share virtually no common ground except a professed concern for the students in question, who suffer from autism, mental retardation, schizophrenia, and other developmental or psychological disorders. Some advocates feel the use of painful treatments is wrong in all cases. Parents of some of the students in question, however, contend that the aversive therapies are all that’s keeping their children from killing themselves. They filed a federal lawsuit to block New York’s temporary rules.

Most of the debate has been focused on a particular school, the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, where more than 150 New York State students live and study on New York State-funded tuition of over $200,000 a year; 100 of them are New York City students. New Yorkers make up more than half the school. About half of the students there receive skin shocks—painful, 2-second applications of electrical stimulus through the skin. New York’s push for tighter regulations began when a Long Island mother sued her local school district claiming that her son had been mistreated at Rotenberg. A New York inspection found that Rotenberg was applying skin shocks too often and for inappropriate reasons. Rotenberg denied the claims in the mother’s suit and the New York report.

Like the temporary rules, the newly proposed rules ban aversive therapies except in cases where a child exhibit behaviors that pose a severe risk to himself or others and has proven untreatable by other techniques. But the new version tightens the regime in several ways. It allows no exception for preschool students; you simply can’t shock them. It allows aversives to be used only by schools approved by June 30, 2007. And it restricts the use of aversives to students for which such treatment has been prescribed before June 30, 2009. After that, it would seem, no New York student is going to get skin shocks on the taxpayer’s dime unless they were already getting them.

The new rules also ban several types of aversive treatments that previous versions seemed to accept, like “ice applications, hitting, slapping, pinching, deep muscle squeezes, … withholding of sleep, shelter, bedding, bathroom facilities, denial or unreasonable delays in providing regular meals to the student that would result in a student not receiving adequate nutrition.” And they require that the people administering the aversives be “appropriately licensed professionals or certified special education teachers … or under the direct supervision and direct observation of such staff.” That applies directly to Rotenberg, where some of the classroom aides who administer the shocks have no particular certification, and where several of the psychologists on staff recently paid fines for operating without a Massachusetts license.

The new regulations (see pages 13-18 here) are pretty dense and people are still sorting through them. But given the fact that the rules still allow for the use of aversives, opponents of those treatments are unlikely to be satisfied. Meanwhile, proponents of the treatments chaff at the restrictions. Matthew Israel, the founder and director of Rotenberg, says in a statement: “These revisions totally prohibit child-specific exceptions for new students after June 30, 2009 and make it even more difficult for JRC to continue to use aversives with those students who currently are benefiting from them. The revisions suggest that the real goal of NYSED is to rule out aversives completely rather than simply ensure that they are being used safely and properly.”