OP-ED: Shocks inefficient and immoral
Before Brandeis Students United Against The Judge Rotenberg Center went forward with our efforts against the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, we asked ourselves a question:Are we rushing to judgment?
The issues surrounding the JRC and its tactics for disciplining its mentally disabled students are complex. We wanted to make sure we understood all the facts before we in any way took action against the Center. While the allegations we had read in the Mother Jones article ("School of Shock," Aug. 20 issue) were extremely disturbing, we knew that it was essential to understand the other side of the issue before proceeding.
And so the members of our club did research. We read all of the news articles from the past 20 years that concerned the Center. We read an online response to Mother Jones by Matthew Israel, the founder of the Center. We poured over the Center's Web site. We read the New York State Department of Education's damning report about the JRC. We got in touch with The Arc, a major disability rights group, to learn more. We contacted psychologists to get further opinions. We discussed and debated as a group what we thought of the Center and its techniques.
Our verdict was clear: Even after hearing the Center's defense, the JRC stood out as a despicable institution. In fact, the JRC's Web site itself told us all the facts we needed to know.
The important part of this issue lies not in the Center's petty disputes with the Mother Jones reporter, or their quibbles with the Department of Education's disturbing report. The issue that needs to be discussed-the issue that the Center's representatives avoid confronting-is whether it's morally acceptable to administer painful electric shocks to handicapped children; children with mental retardation, autism and depression.
In this day and age, there shouldn't even be a debate. Modern psychological science has long since moved past the idea that corporal punishment is ever necessary or acceptable. Every major disability rights group strongly opposes the use of aversive therapy-including such groups as the Disability Law Center, the Mass. Developmental Disabilities Council, Advocates for Autism of Mass., the Disability Policy Consortium, and 16 others who have signed a joint statement condemning the use of pain to modify behavior.
Israel has a tendency to attack his critics for failing to understand the seriousness of the behavior problems in the Center's children, and for condemning him without a
grasp of the facts. Certainly the members of our group considered this before we took action. We worried we were perhaps being na've and emotional, that we were jumping to conclusions. But extensive research revealed that Israel is very much in the minority in his opinion that severe pain is an effective-and morally justifiable-way to treat children. Those who work with the disabled for a living, who have dedicated their lives to helping them, who are experts in the field, almost universally deplore aversive tactics.
Israel likes to cite success stories and testimonials in making his case for the Center. The JRC Web site boasts plenty of letters from parents, gushing about how the Center saved their lives, yet two students died under Israel's watch: Vincent Milletich, a 22-year-old autistic resident of a JRC group home in Seehonk, Mass. in 1995 and Linda Cornelison, a 19-year-old mentally disabled, non-verbal resident in 1990.
The problem with the JRC's "successes," however, is two-fold.
First, even if administering electric shocks successfully improves children's behavior (and that in itself is an extremely shaky assertion), the behavior has only improved because of fear and pain. This sort of treatment, even when it's effective, will cause deep-rooted psychological trauma down the road because of its exclusive reliance on jolts of electricity instead of behavioral education.
Second, the Center asserts that in every case in which a Graduated Electronic Decelerator shock device is used, parental permission is given and the treat
ment is approved by a judge. The problem is
that neither the judge nor the parents are the ones being shocked. Just as parents cannot lawfully beat their child (even if they give permission), the idea that parental permission should determine whether a child is zapped has no moral or legal grounds.
There are further reasons to be alarmed about the Center, though. The GED device used to shock students was designed and built by Matthew Israel himself, and has had no real scientific testing or approval (although it is registered with the FDA, it has never been formally recognized as an effective medical device, and its potential dangers have never been investigated). Furthermore, the lack of trained psychologists at the JRC, the Center's refusal to administer medication and the extremely secretive, highly monitored environment of the facility are all causes for concern. The Mother Jones article gives even more reasons to worry, as does the New York State Department of Education's report.
The Center, of course, disputes all of the claims made in both of these publications, as well as every disturbing revelation-and there have been many-that has come out about the Center over the past decades.
But even if what Israel and the Center say is correct-and the evidence certainly suggests it isn't-the central issue is whether it is morally acceptable to inflict great pain on disabled children. And it isn't.
The writer is a member of the Class of 2011 and Brandeis Students United Against the Judge Rotenberg Center.