Sunday, April 7, 2013
Report criticizes Canton school that uses shock therapy

Six years after two teenage students at a special-needs school were punished with dozens of electrical shocks in a three-hour period, an independent report evaluating safety at the school is calling for better training of staff and the hiring of an ombudsman to field complaints.

In addition to offering graphic detail of the abuse suffered by the two teens, the 128-page report, released Monday by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, also found that the controversial Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton was not doing enough to teach staff about the behaviors that warranted electric shocks to students.

“There appears to be very little, if anything, contained in the Basic Training related to the types of behaviors typically addressed by the GED (Graduated Electronic Decelerator) and why these behaviors are appropriate for treatment with the GED,” the report written by retired Judge Isaac Borenstein stated.

The residential school and treatment program for disabled people with severe emotional problems is believed to be the only school in the country that uses electric-shock therapy to modify behavior.

It is called aversive therapy, and many students at the center continue to wear the electronic shock device in backpacks with wires connected to straps around an arm or leg. The device can deliver a two-second, surface-level shock meant to control behaviors related to serious mental disorders such as self-mutilation and aggression.

“The board of directors has already voted to accept all the recommendations and has implemented them,” said Michael Flammia, a Boston attorney who represents the Rotenberg school, said in commenting on the report.

Flammia said that about 80 students are currently approved to receive the electric shock treatments.

The evaluation from Borenstein was made public as a result of a plea deal two years ago after a special grand jury indicted the school’s founder, Dr. Matthew Israel, on charges that he misled a witness and destroyed a videotape related to the 2007 abuse of the two students.

In August 2007, a former student placed a prank call to a Rotenberg group home in Stoughton and coaxed workers into administering more than 100 shocks to the teens. One victim was from Halifax.
Israel agreed in Norfolk Superior Court to five years of probation and to step down as director of the school. Part of the deal was Borenstein’s year-long probe of practices at the school, which laid bare what the attorney general’s office called “flawed JRC policies and procedures.”

After numerous interviews with administrators and staff, the report revisited the night of Aug. 26, 2007, when the hoax phone call led to the abuse, and described what happened to the 19-year-old from Halifax, identified as John Doe.

“After the thirteenth GED, John Doe began shaking and breathing deeply. The staff failed to count all of the GED applications, counting nine total when there had been 15 given,” the report stated.

After 70 shocks were given to Doe, he was taken to a basement room to sleep. “Doe told staff that his mouth was dry, blood pressure racing and he was sweating. John Doe said he felt like he was about to have a stroke. Staff took no action,” Borenstein wrote in the report.

Borenstein also concluded that the Rotenberg center “has implemented a number of positive changes since August 2007 to address safety.”

Three more quarterly reports are expected from Borenstein who will assess how well the school executes his latest recommendations.