Judge Rotenberg Educational Center
The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC, formerly known as the Behavior Research Institute) is a facility for special needs students that operates in Canton, Massachusetts. They provide behavior modification and educational services to children and adults with severe developmental disabilities and emotional or behavior disorders, as well as respite care to their primary caregivers. The center is the only facility in the United States that makes extensive use of aversives, including electric shock and withholding of food, in its treatment and behavioral interventions. The release of a video of a student being shocked prompted outrage and resulted in the school being reported to the United Nations for torture, and resulted in an investigation by Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture and a discussion at a United States Senate Committee on alternatives to aversive therapies.
The center was founded as the Behavior Research Institute in 1971 by Matthew L. Israel, a psychologist who trained with B. F. Skinner. In 1994 the center changed its name to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center "to honor the memory of the judge [who] helped to preserve [the] program from extinction at the hands of state licensing officials in the 1980’s." It has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charging $220,000 a year for each student.
The Judge Rotenberg Center treatment goals include a near-zero rejection/expulsion policy, active treatment with a behavioral approach directed exclusively towards normalization, frequent use of behavioral rewards and punishment, video monitoring of staff and the option to use aversives, the most controversial of which is the use of electric shocks. The final item provoked considerable controversy and led to calls from several disability rights groups to call for human protection from Aversion therapy approaches.
In 2011 facilities licensed by the DDS (Department of Developmental Services) in Massachusetts, including but not limited to the Judge Rotenberg Center, were banned from subjecting new admissions to severe behavioral interventions including electric shock, long-term restraint, or aversives that pose risk for psychological harm.
Use of aversives
The center administers 2-second electric skin shocks to residents using a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), which was invented to administer the skin-shocks by remote control through electrodes worn against the skin. Most often, the shocks are initiated manually by the staff. Automatic punishment is also used by forcing the patient to sit down on a cushion; if they stand up, they are automatically shocked. To address high-risk, low-frequency behaviors, a "Behavior Rehearsal Lesson" has been planned: The person is restrained and forcibly told to misbehave: if the student pulls away, he is shocked; if he follows the order to engage in the risky behavior, he is shocked even more. The center stated on its website that electrical shock aversives are only employed after positive behavioral interventions have not been proven to help with violent, self-injurious behaviors and the GED is used with 42% of residents of school age.
In October 2011 in response to a controversy involving the shocking of a student, the Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick signed an order preventing the center from using electrical shocks with any new students, though students with court-approved treatment plans that included shocks were still permitted to use them (the ruling affected 88 out of a total of 233 students).
Risks of electric shock
Concerns into the treatment regime prompted investigation by New York City Council and an independent report was commissioned which was highly critical of both processes and oversight at the facility. The report mentioned a dependence on punishment, almost to the total exclusion of positive reinforcement, medication or psychological therapy. This dependence is also evident in the lack of effort to switch gradually to other treatment as the condition of the patients improves. Social interaction, academic instruction and respect for the patients dignity were all found insufficient. The report also found substantial risks of malnourishment and side effects of the repeated punishments — both physical (burns) and psychological (fear, PTSD, aggression). The qualifications of the personnel were judged insufficient; indeed, most of the staff have only completed high school. Some of the electrical shocking devices used are not cleared by the FDA.
In December 2007, the center was found by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to have been abusive towards residents, failing to protect their health, after two residents were shocked using a GED on the behest of a former student, posing as a staff member via telephone. Video surveillance revealed that one resident was restrained on a 4-point board despite the fact the individual was not approved for this type of physical restraint. In response, the center has claimed to have instituted several reforms, including re-training current staff, appointing new supervisors, regularly reviewing video recordings of staff and supposedly instituting random spot checks of staff behavior, new call screening procedures and the suspension or cancellation of certain punishments (including the GED for certain residential units). The center also had its operations reviewed until December 2008, with specific attention being paid to the use of GED to ensure they were only used for extremely dangerous and self-destructive behavior, and also supposedly had to show the treatments reduce those behaviors. A video tape documenting a compilation of the footage related to abuse investigations was destroyed by the school after being reviewed by several investigators, despite being requested to keep the tape by an investigator with the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.
On April 29, 2010, the American human rights organization Mental Disability Rights International filed a request with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, stating they believed the residents were being subjected to human rights abuses due to their use of aversives. On May 11, Special Rapporteur Nowak sent what he described as "an urgent appeal to the U.S. government asking them to investigate" and later stated "This is torture...But even for a good purpose...You cannot balance this. The prohibition of torture is absolute."
The JRC replied to a news story on the appeal, calling it "nothing more than a regurgitation of the outdated, false and unproven accusations that have been made against JRC". The JRC stated that their treatments were often the last form of treatment for severely affected individuals, and that the treatments free them from "restraint, drugs, self-abuse, and all the severe pain it was causing them, through the use of safe, effective and far less intrusive behavioral treatment". The reply also stated that the evidence cited in the MDRI request grossly misstated information found on the JRC website, misquoted statements made by former students to only show the interventions used while ignoring statements by students that the treatments were effective and permitted them to live better lives and that "It would be torture to not treat these students and allow them to be chemically restrained and warehoused for the rest of their lives."
In 2012 a former student launched a lawsuit against the center after an incident in which the student was restrained for seven hours and shocked many times. The incident prompted a protest against the schools use of aversives  and an investigation by a second Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations, Juan E. Méndez. Méndez stated that though the passage of electricity through the body was associated with pain and suffering, the outcome depended on how long and how much of a shock was used, as well as the rationale for its use.
Parents of difficult children have been both highly supportive and critical of the center's practices; the center has been both praised for allowing residents and parents to live together, while others have sued the school based on their use of aversives.
Destruction of videotapes
In May 2011, Matthew Israel was charged with misleading a grand jury over the school's destruction of tapes of episodes of students being shocked, as well as being an accessory after the fact. Israel resigned his position at the JRC in a deferred prosecution plea deal with the Massachusetts State Attorney General's office. The JRC is currently administered by a court-appointed monitor.
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- "Torture not Treatment: Electric Shock and Long-Term Restraint in the United States on Children and Adults with Disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center" (pdf). Mental Disability Rights International. 2010-04-29. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- Hinman, K; Brown K (2010-06-30). "UN Calls Shock Treatment at Mass. School 'Torture'". ABC News. Retrieved 2012-08-03.
- "JRC Response to Tim Minton's Story on WNBCTV on the MDRA Appeal" (pdf). Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- Toness, BV (2011-05-26). "Founder Forced To Leave Controversial Special Needs School". WBUR. Retrieved 2012-08-03.
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