The Judge Rotenberg Center

This reflection was originally posted on October 7, 2016.

CW: child abuse/violence against special education children

Hi friends—

Let me introduce you to the Judge Rotenberg Center. It’s a residential program in Massachusetts for kids with autism that claims to yield extraordinary results and progress, without medication, for behavioral issues so severe that other schools have failed to curtail them.

Sounds great, right?

With a substantial portion of their students, Rotenberg is claiming to manage behavior using “aversives”, which hopefully sounds to you like Orwellian doublespeak, because it is. Students are strapped with backpacks and rigged with electrodes for “minor shocks” that are described as “akin to a bee sting”. I’m sure there is absolutely no subset of the population that is likely to react differently to a shock “akin to a bee sting” in ways that might cause them psychological trauma.

There is a significant amount of journalistic volume out there (and fair warning, some pretty chilling videos that accompany them) about exactly how these devices are used at Rotenberg—stories of children receiving shocks for “panic” clearly caused by the fear of receiving shocks, of children receiving shocks for crying out in pain after being shocked, of children receiving shocks for closing their eyes when walking, of teachers being required by protocol to shock six or seven students at once,

Would it surprise you to learn that the scientific research that formed the basis for this has been specifically disavowed by the person who initially performed the research in the 1960s?

Would it surprise you to learn that Amnesty International has released reports specifically targeted at American use of such devices and their classification as torture?

Would it surprise you to learn that even if this scenario were covered by the Eighth Amendment, it has not been outlawed and appears to still be in regular use in state prisons? (Rotenberg, to the best of my knowledge, does not even remotely fall under the 8A state action test, but somebody who actually took Eighth Amendment might be better able to confirm.)

How would you feel if I told you that between 1981 and 1990, there were three deaths at the center, and in all three cases, the center either settled or was found not liable? (The name of the center comes from the judge who overruled a Massachusetts government order to close the school after one of these deaths, which is a mind-bending piece of logic I haven’t even begun to unpack.)

Now what if I told you that parents, particularly those who are desperate to find a solution for children who may be unfit for their day-school programs and mired in a bureaucratic process to get them into such a placement, are somehow identified and cold-called by Rotenberg in order to recruit them to bring their state dollars to Massachusetts? Because it’s happened to multiple of my clients already.

When the state of New York tried to remove all New York–based children from the school, parents who felt that it was their option sued to place their children back in Rotenberg and won. Students placed from New York are barred from receiving aversives unless a long list of alternatives are documented to have been exhausted, but they are still in the same classrooms as those who do. The learning environment must be quite productive.

I am not in the position of a parent who feels like this is their only option, and I do not claim to know their desperation. But why are we putting parents in a place where this is their only option? Even if this action is constitutional, why are we okay with normalizing something that EVEN if it claims to work, has incredible capacity for abuse and trauma? And given that, how can we as a society justify being so comfortable with daring the systems we construct to throw people’s lives away as if they never deserved a chance?

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