Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dept. of Justice begins investigation into use of electric shock on students at Judge Rotenberg Center

From The Boston Globe:

The US Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether a special needs school in Canton, Mass., violates federal disability laws by disciplining students with electrical skin shocks.

It is the first federal probe of the highly scrutinized Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (pictured) and follows demands from more than 30 disability rights groups from across the country.

In a September 2009 letter, the groups said the facility’s use of “painful and dehumanizing behavioral techniques violates all principles of human rights.’’ They seek to end the school’s use of shock therapy, something that several state inquiries have so far failed to do.

For nearly four decades, the school has generated controversy for its unorthodox methods, administered to roughly half of the 200 students. Many of them have autism, developmental disabilities, or emotional troubles, and some have criminal records or are at risk of hurting themselves. Those students wear electrodes attached to their skin, and staff members can remotely trigger a two-second electrical shock through a hand-held device.

Many parents who have children at the Rotenberg center have supported the school, saying it accepted their children when other institutions turned them away or that the shocks are a better alternative to heavy sedation administered at some facilities.

But advocates for the disabled have been sharply critical, spurring a number of efforts to close the school.

Michael Flammia, an attorney for the Rotenberg Center, said the school has cooperated with all investigators over the years. He defended the state-licensed school as an important and safe facility that has helped hundreds of students each year. He said any child who receives its skin-shock discipline does so only under a court-approved plan.

Renee Wohlenhaus, deputy chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Justice Department, said in a letter last week that her agency would look into whether the Rotenberg Center violates the nation’s laws on the fair treatment of the disabled. She did not respond to a request for an interview.

While Wohlenhaus’s letter referred to the inquiry as a routine investigation, federal officials and disability advocates say the investigation is significant because the agency does not choose to probe all complaints they receive.

Nancy Weiss, director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities and the author of the letter on behalf of the disability groups, said her conversations with Justice Department officials lead her to believe that their probe will be far from “perfunctory.’’

Among the groups signing the letter are major disability rights groups, such as ARC of the United States, the Autism National Committee, and United Cerebral Palsy.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office is also looking into whether the Rotenberg Center violated any laws in 2007, when staff members were duped by a phone caller who pretended to be a top school official and ordered dozens of punishing electrical shocks on two students. School authorities later destroyed surveillance tapes that recorded the incident.

Charles Dumas, the father of a student who received the punishing shocks, said the attorney general’s office has interviewed him and his son, Kyle, in the past several weeks.

After the incident, the school adopted new procedures to avoid repetition of the incident, Flammia said.

The center has endured two attempts by state agencies to close the facility in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Many parents have praised the founder of the Rotenberg Center, Harvard-educated psychologist Matthew Israel, as being a savoir for their extremely difficult children.

The school’s critics maintain that the Rotenberg Center’s methods are barbaric. Some disability advocates say students are punished for behaviors as minor as stopping work for a short time, getting out of their seats, interrupting others, or whispering.

They say some youngsters are deprived of food and placed in prolonged restraints, sometimes while being shocked.

Polyxane Cobb, a member of the Coalition for the Legal Rights of People with Disabilities in Boston, said she is hopeful that federal authorities will stop the practice. “I don’t think the Department of Justice wastes its time on a casual investigation,’’ she said.