posted by: Kristina Chew
May 26, 2011
Video included

When I first heard about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JREC) in Canton, Massachusetts, I couldn’t believe that such a school existed. The JREC is a school for that uses electric shocks to discipline students with disabilities including autism, mental retardation or emotional-behavioral issues. The school was founded by a Harvard-trained psychologist, Matthew Israel and has long attracted controversy among disability rights activists, parents and experts in the field of mental health.

Today, the Boston Globe reports that Israel faces criminal charges over an incident in 2007, when two teenagers with disabilities who were residents at the JREC were wrongfully administered a number of shocks after a prank phone call by someone posing as a supervisor ordered them.

If the use of electric skin shock on children with disabilities is not troubling and barbaric enough, the suit against Israel also suggests how woefully poor the JREC’s administrative practices are and also brings into question the training and supervision of its staff at all levels. From the Boston Globe:

A court official who works at the Norfolk County Superior Court said that today’s schedule of cases lists a defendant named Matthew Israel facing two charges, misleading a grand jury and accessory after the fact to a crime.

The charges against Israel are believed to be related to the destruction of some of the center’s digital surveillance tapes that would have showed what occurred the night of Aug. 26, 2007, in one of the center’s residential group homes in Stoughton. That night, staffers received a prank phone call from someone posing as a supervisor, saying two teenagers, including Dumas’s son, should be administered electrical shocks as punishment for bad behavior earlier that day.

As part of a deal with the Massachusetts state attorney office, Israel is to step down as director of the JREC that he founded 40 years ago and will be on probation for five years. The JREC’s daily activities are to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor, as part of the agreement.

As the mother of a teenage autistic son, my beloved boy Charlie — a child who has had some very severe behavior issues including self-injurious behavior — I could never even imagine sending him to a place like the JREC where methods that amount to torture are used. As I wrote on a blog formerly known as Autism Vox, an ABC News story reported that families have been “willing to try aversive stimulation to save their son from self-destruction” and have described the JRC as the only school that would take their children due to the severity of their behavioral issues.

Indeed, despite widespread criticism about the methods used by the JREC, the state of Massachusetts has still given its approval for the center to keep functioning. But some states — including New Jersey, where we live — who had placed individuals with disabilities at the JRC have now stated that they will no longer send students there, due to the JRC’s aversive practices.

The JREC has launched a national search for a replacement for Israel, the Boston Globe notes. While I respect the needs of families who feel the JREC is the right placement for their children, I don’t think I’m the only one, and certainly not the only disability advocate, who thinks that the JREC should simply be closed. Here in the US in the 21st century, it is an embarrassment that a place that uses such aversive treatments including electric shock (delivered in a specially designed backpack) on individuals with disabilities is still allowed to operate.