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.
The things that have taken place at JRC have prompted calls for the FDA to ban the use of electric shock as a punishment for students, but the FDA ignored the issue for years and even had protesters arrested for attempting to raise awareness about the issue outside of their headquarters.
Even after the original story went viral, special needs students were still being shocked. After years of protests and testimony, the FDA finally banned the practice this year but the former victims say that it’s not enough.
While the rare ban is considered a “significant step forward” and giving people with disabilities and advocates “a sigh of relief” advocates said — they also said it’s not enough.
“A ban will do nothing to undo the decades of torture that people confined to JRC have had to suffer through until now,” said Lydia Brown, Associate for Disability Rights and Algorithmic Fairness at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech Law and Policy. “And Massachusetts has a responsibility to make reparations to the survivors.”
Despite the ban in March of this year, a technicality allowed it to remain legal for up to six more months. According to Masslive, the ban goes into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, and for those who need a transition period compliance is required 180 days after publication.
“[The ban’s] so overdue, they started shocking people in 1988,” Brown said. “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.”
JRC reported to the FDA that they are still shocking some students once a week — in 2020 — in America.
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.”
Even after the FDA’s ban on shock therapy, the school is still battling to keep it. JRC Parents Association said in a statement to MassLive, that the FDA’s decision “can only be interpreted one way: FDA is saying that our children’s lives do not matter.”
However, the students being subjected to this abuse obviously disagree, and there are several former staff members who began speaking out against the use of electric shock.
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.