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News :: Social Welfare
Massachusetts aproves continued electroshock punishment for mentally retarded youths
23 Dec 2007
After a prank call, mentally retarded youth were "mistakenly" given routine electric shock punishment.
State lets center use shocks for one year
Extension requires a series of changes
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton uses electric shocking devices similar to this for many of its students. (JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2006)

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / December 22, 2007
State authorities have given a controversial special education school in Canton a one-year extension of its authority to use electric shock treatments on students, provided the center makes a series of significant changes.

Among them, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center must prove that it uses shock treatments only for the most dangerous and self-destructive behaviors and that the aversive therapy actually led to a reduction of those harmful actions.

The center must also stop electric shocks for "seemingly minor infractions," such as getting out of a seat without approval or swearing. And it must show greater commitment to phasing out shock treatments, especially for those about to leave the school to enter mainstream society.

Past reauthorizations have been for two years, rather than the one year given this time.

Jean McGuire, assistant secretary of the state's Office of Health and Human Services, said the state has issued this conditional reauthorization well aware of the events last August in which two teenagers wrongfully received dozens of electrical shocks at the direc tion of a caller posing as a supervisor. The caller told staff to wake up the teenagers and give them dozens of shocks each based on alleged behavior that had occurred at least five hours earlier.

McGuire said the center has promised to eliminate delayed punishments and end the delivery of shocks to students who are sleeping. While the school's critics want the state to ban any form of shock treatment, McGuire said the state also had to consider the many parents who defend the school as the only effective place for their hard-to-teach youngsters.

School spokesman Ernest Corrigan said he believes the one-year authorization is a sign of the state's continuing faith in the school. He said that many of the state's top psychologists and physicians were involved in the state's inspections of the school this year and that their decision to recommend conditional reauthorization of shock treatment is a "reaffirmation of some of the good work" at the school.

Critics of the Rotenberg Center expressed disappointment that state officials, especially in light of the August episode, did not order the school to end the shock treatment program, which critics consider ineffective and inhumane.

"The state needed to go further," said Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, a group representing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The provisional reauthorization was given by the Department of Mental Retardation, which is responsible for overseeing the shock therapy program. The Rotenberg Center is the only school in the nation that depends so heavily on shock treatments for its students, most of whom are autistic, mentally retarded, or have serious emotional problems.

According to the report, the school has about 250 students, nearly all of whom attend the center's Canton school and live in one of its 38 group homes in nearby communities. Two-thirds are minors; the rest are adults. Roughly one-third are from Massachusetts. About 60 percent of all students have court-approved plans that allow for shock treatment.

In the reauthorization, state officials criticized the center for producing generic-looking treatment and assessment plans for the students, seemingly using a common template for many of them.

They also said the center failed to consider circumstances that may have provoked an offending behavior or to reduce those triggering situations.

One student observed by inspectors looked bored sorting Popsicle sticks. This boredom, the report found, may "serve to lower the threshold for engaging in inappropriate behaviors," thus triggering a potential punishing shock.

McGuire said the state plans to inspect the school next month, as well as repeatedly throughout the year to make sure the required changes are being addressed.

"We're being as aggressive as we can," McGuire said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen (at) globe.com.

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