Bristol County, MA – As TFTP reported, in 2018, Family Court Judge Katherine Field denied a motion to stop the use of electric shock on disabled students, a form of punishment that has been controversial for years after news of the practice first reached the public in 2013 when video surfaced of an 18-year-old student receiving dozens of shocks for refusing to take off his jacket.
“(The state) failed to demonstrate that there is now a professional consensus that the Level III aversive treatment used at JRC does not conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Judge Field wrote in her decision.
The facility in question is the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC), a special needs day and residential school in Canton, and it is the only school in the country that was still using electric shocks on its students. Records show that at least 58 students at the school have received shocks as of August 2017.
People living at JRC aren’t just from Massachusetts. According to The Guardian, they come from 15 states including Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and California. In 2014, ProPublica found that New York taxpayers spend $30 million a year sending children from their state to the Massachusetts school.
There are two shock aversive devices used at the JRC. The main Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) delivers a 15.5-milliamp shock of up to two seconds, and the GED-4 gives shocks of 45.5 milliamps. By comparison, most police tasers deliver shocks of 2.1 or 3.6 milliamps.
The things that have taken place at JRC prompted calls for the FDA to ban the use of electric shock as a punishment for students and in March of 2020, they officially banned the use of electric shock. However, that ban has been overturned.
On July 6, according to MassLive.com, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the ban was beyond the FDA’s authority as it was a regulation of the practice of medicine.
“In this case, the statute says that the FDA is not to construe its statute so as to interfere with the practice of medicine,” the opinion reads. “That means that the FDA may not enact the regulation at issue before us.”
After the decision, the school released a statement, praising the decision, noting “the ruling was a victory for the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center and a group of parents and guardians of its students, which had challenged the regulation.”
“The Court’s ruling means that JRC can continue to provide this court-approved and court-monitored Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) treatment as part of its holistic treatment plan for profound aggressive or self-injurious behavior,” JRC said in a statement. “The GED is a treatment of last resort, and its recipients are at risk of grievous bodily harm, or even death, without it. With the treatment, these residents can continue to participate in enriching experiences, enjoy visits with their families and, most importantly, live in safety and freedom from self-injurious and aggressive behaviors.”
“[The ban’s] so overdue, they started shocking people in 1988,” said Lydia Brown, Associate for Disability Rights and Algorithmic Fairness at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech Law and Policy, last year after the FDA’s decision. “It’s been condemned twice by the United Nations, the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation. And yet, it’s still legal. Technically, it is still legal for 30 days in general. And up to six months for some other people.”
The overturning of the ban doesn’t change much as even after the ban, JRC reported to the FDA that they are still shocking some students once a week.
Despite the obvious ethical concerns with this practice, there is a cult-like support among the staff and even some parents for what they call “aversive treatment.”
After the family court refused to ban it in 2018, a statement from the JRC Parents Group was released in support of it:
“As parents whose children attend and received treatment at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) we welcome the court’s ruling and repudiation of Massachusetts government officials at the Department of Developmental Service (DDS), who acted in bad faith and impermissibly made treatment decisions for JRC Clients—our children, just as officials within the agency had done in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The JRC Parents Association said they are grateful for the decision to overturn the FDA’s ban, adding that it is “life saving treatment of last resort.”
However, the students being subjected to this abuse obviously disagree, and there are several former staff members and parents who began speaking out against the use of electric shock. Last year, the parents of children who were subject to the electric shocks demanded reoperations and a former teacher went public.
Whistleblower Greg Miller, who taught at the facility from 2003-2006, told MassLive.com that he truly believed that this barbaric therapy was saving lives.
“I believed in that place at first because I was told that it was the only place in the world that could really save these kids lives and most of them would be dead if they weren’t hooked up to the electric shock,” Miller said.
Miller said that electric shock was used on students for the smallest infractions, even something as small as standing up or speaking without permission. Eventually, he began to observe that the students were horrified of the shocks and they were rarely aggressive enough to require such a painful punishment.
“I was seeing more and more ways I could do something other than shock the students,” Miller said.
Miller ultimately quit, unable to cope with the ethical dilemma that came along with the job.
The use of shock therapy has been proven to be ineffective, and it is not used very often because other treatments work much better.
“People don’t use it anymore because they don’t need to. It is not the standard of care. There are alternative procedures that do not involve aversives like electronic shock. And I am not talking about drugs as an alternative. I am talking about other behavioral treatments,” Dr. William Pelham, a behavioral specialist, and director of the Center for Children and Families at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told the New York Times.
As you watch the video below, remember that this is still going on in the land of the free in 2021.