I deeply regret having worked as a teacher’s assistant at The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a “special needs school” in Canton, Massachusetts, where children and teenagers with autism and other disabilities are administered electric shocks as a means of controlling their behaviors.
I joined the JRC because I thought I would be helping these special needs students. But it became clear that this practice was painful, traumatic, and more harmful than good. I never would have used these "GED" shock devices had JRC not told me and other staff in training that the GEDs had been “approved by the FDA”. When asking an administrator about the severe thick and bloodied scabby injuries all over students' bodies, I was told that these machines had been tested and were “proven to be safe” as necessary to get FDA approval. I did not know until 2012 that this was a lie!
The human rights abuses taking place at the JRC are well documented. In 2013, the United Nations in “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez,” unequivocally stated that the methods used at the JRC are “torture” in violation of international human rights standards.
Please see the short video of Andre McCollins strapped down on a restraint board by lock and key, and shocked repeatedly over seven hours. It's hard to watch but the video shows Andre, who has autism, being being shocked for refusing to take off his coat. He was embarrassed that he had been forced to wear the clothes of another student that morning that he was concealing with his jacket, and people with autism sometimes have difficulty with change.
Andre was shocked an additional 19 times that day for tensing his muscles while being tortured (tensing muscles reduces the amount of pain), and he was shocked 9 times for yelling and screaming for the shocks to stop, all in response to being shocked. JRC listed "full body tense up" as a "health dangerous behavior", and yelling and screaming - "Someone, help me, please!" as a "major disruptive behavior," even though Andre was strapped to the board as this was happening!
The treatment that Andre received was not unique. JRC's lawyers testified in court that staff did their jobs well that day by following Andre's program. While I was an employee at JRC, I observed many students being tied up on restraint boards and restraint chairs and shocked repeatedly. In some rooms, three students might be tied to restraint boards getting shocked at the same time. The lower-functioning nonverbal students were often shocked up to the maximum of 30 shocks per day, resulting in so many bloody and crusty scabs all over students' arms, legs, torsos, and fingers, that there was nowhere left to place the electrodes without burning through old scabs and burns.
Students at JRC are not only shocked for severe behavior problems. I was forced to shock certain students for even the most minor behaviors such as pulling apart a loose piece of thread, tearing a used paper cup, standing up to give a teacher a hug, or standing up and raising a hand politely to ask to go to the bathroom. Many of the lower-functioning nonverbal students lived and reacted in constant fear and anxiety.
When they observed their peers being shocked, and even when they saw a teacher reaching for a pencil in their pocket that was close to the remote control buttons that activate the shock devices, these students in their extreme anxiety would stand up out of their seat, yell in fear, throw down their task, or pull their own electrodes off of their skin -- and are then shocked for these reactions. A young man with autism was shocked for closing his eyes for more than 10 seconds while sitting at his desk. As part of her behavioral plan, a beautiful nonverbal blind girl with cerebral palsy was shocked for attempting to hold the hand of any staff, which was her only means to communicate and to be loved. The same student was also shocked according to her behavioral plan for "loud moaning," and later it was discovered she had a cracked tooth and that her loud moaning had been her many attempts to communicate that she was in severe pain!
In 2006, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) wrote a detailed report that included descriptions of highly abusive and questionable interventions (which have not been systematically studied and have not been reported in the empirical literature) against New York State students, but was unable to pull students out of the JRC due to the threat of costly litigation and to JRC’s deliberate misleading of New York State authorities. In 2011, Dr. Matthew Israel, the founder and the Executive Director of the JRC, was indicted by a grand jury for the obstruction of justice by destroying evidence related to the use of his GED-shock devices, which had caused severe injuries to students. The plea agreement reached with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulted in his resignation (he now resides in California), and five years’ probation.
Parents of students still at JRC and certain state authorities are misled to think that only severe pain and torture can help their children. Schools exist across the country and globe that serve students who have very similar needs to students at JRC. Students at JRC are not unique to the rest of the world, but only JRC specializes in severe pain and acts of torture. Already New York State has returned some of its students to New York from JRC.
Please ban all aversive shock devices in America and bring America into compliance with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” How can America ask other countries to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if America does not also comply?