Two recent laws renew a long-standing fight against the practice of using electric shocks on people with disabilities as a behavior modification tool – and the role of New York taxpayers’ money in funding the only school of the country to do so.
The Judge Rotenberg Center, a boarding school for children and adults in Canton, Mass., has sparked controversy for decades for its use of a device that shocks people with disabilities to prevent what the school describes as dangerous or violent behavior .
Despite multiple attempts by lawmakers, parents and disability rights advocates to end the practice, it remains legal and the school continues to administer electric shocks to about 50 adult residents, according to officials. school.
Proposals pending in the New York State Legislature and Congress may soon change that.
A bill by New York State Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) would stop the state from sending public money to the school if it continues to use the practice – stopping an annual flow of more than $20 million in taxpayer dollars from New York City school districts and the state Office for Adults with Disabilities which are a major source of funding for the school, according to Brisport.
About half of the school’s 300 residents are from New York, including 62 students whose tuition is covered by the New York City Department of Education after education officials determined that they could not be served in other public or private schools in the state. The DOE spent more than $8 million last year on such tuition, according to department data.
“It’s an inhumane practice that every other institution in the United States has stopped,” said Brisport, whose bill is named after Andre McCollins, a former Rotenberg student who was hospitalized in 2002 at 18. years after being shocked 31 times in minutes. while being attached to a board.
At the federal level, legislation approved by the House of Representatives and pending a vote in the Senate would force the Food and Drug Administration to ban the device used by the Rotenberg Center to deliver the shocks.
The FDA banned the device in 2020, but a federal appeals court ruled the agency lacked the authority to enact the ban on its own.
But the practice is also fiercely defended by some families of Judge Rotenberg residents, who describe it as a life-saving treatment of last resort that prevents their loved ones from serious injury or worse.
Parents and school administrators argue that the issue should receive full public debate in the Senate and that banning the device outright would be a harmful incursion into personal medical decisions.
“My daughter is going to die if they take this away from us,” said Marcia Shear, of Long Island, whose 29-year-old daughter, Samantha, has been at the Judge Rotenberg Center since she was 12.
Samantha, who has autism, intellectual disability and behavioral disability, has tried several special schools and a cocktail of drugs to stop self-harming behaviors, including hitting the side of her head so hard that ‘she detached her retina,’ Shear said.
But nothing made a difference until electric shocks, which are administered by staff members at two-second intervals via a device carried in a backpack attached by wires to patches on the students’ skin, according to Shear.
School officials add that anyone who receives the electric shocks – the youngest of whom is 26 – has the approval of a judge and that the school has made changes since the early 2000s, including the discontinued use of the array to which Andre McCollins was attached.
But some former students who experienced the electric shocks say they were administered in response to more than just violent or dangerous behavior – and that the device caused more harm than it prevented.
“It’s like you can’t really prepare for anything. It was terrifying,” said Jennifer Msumba, 46, who has autism, tics and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attended school between 2002 and 2009, receiving electric shocks for most of that time. .
“They give you this huge list of things that constitute a shocking offence. Reaching out my hands, waving my hands in front of my face. They shock you for saying more than five inappropriate verbal behaviors in an hour.
Nathan Blenkush, director of clinical services at the Judge Rotenberg Center, says staff members are trained to administer shocks for behaviors that the school has identified as “antecedents” that can lead to violent or dangerous behavior.
Blenkush claimed that each person receiving electric shocks receives an average of one zap per week and described it as “safe, low-level current”.
But Msumba, who likened the electric shocks to bee stings, said the emotional scar from the shocks survived any physical pain.
“I’ve been gone for about 14 years and I still have nightmares every night about this place,” said Msumba, who now lives in a residence in Florida. “I am shocked every night of my life.”
A New York State Department of Education spokeswoman said state law bars any school-aged student attending Judge Rotenberg Center from receiving shocks, though 21 New York adults do it.
The school, however, is still listed as an “accredited” private school for children who cannot be accommodated in other public or private schools in the state – allowing families to apply for public funding for tuition fees. schooling without court approval, according to a city Department of Education spokesperson.
The New York City Department of Education paid more than $8 million to cover tuition for more than 60 students at Judge Rotenberg Center last year, according to agency data.
Glenda Crookes, president and CEO of the Judge Rotenberg Center, said if Brisport’s bill to cut New York’s public funding becomes law, it would devastate the school’s finances and hurt students who ” have nowhere to go”.
Brisport argued that if the school stops using electric shocks, its funding will not be compromised and argued that the state has a moral obligation not to support an institution that still uses the practice.
“If we admit it’s wrong to do it, why would we fund a school to keep doing it?” he said.