Justice Department opens inquiry on infamous “School of Shock.”

By Mike Reynolds

The Department of Justice has begun an inquiry into the methods the Judge Rothenburg Center, based in Canton, MA, uses on it's students with severe disabilities, including autism.

The center was founded as the Behavior Research Institute in 1971 by Matthew L. Israel, a psychologist who trained with B. F. Skinner. In 1994 the center changed its name to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center "to honor the memory of the judge [who] helped to preserve [the] program from extinction at the hands of state licensing officials in the 1980’s." It has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charging $220,000 a year for each student. The Judge Rotenberg Center treatment goals include a near-zero rejection/expulsion policy, active treatment with a behavioral approach directed exclusively towards normalization, frequent use of behavioral rewards and punishment, video monitoring of staff and the option to use aversives, the most controversial of which is the use of electric shocks. The final item has provoked considerable controversy and has led to calls from several disability rights groups to call for human protection from behavior modification, behavior therapy, and applied behavior analysis approaches.

The call for the department of Justice Inquiry came from a letter signed by 31 disability rights groups, including the Maine Independent Media Center, based in Waterville. The letter asked the Department of Justice to investigate the school and potential violations of students rights. While the students are covered under a law designed to protect individuals who live in instituional settings, prior investigations have never found the Center to be in violation, despite the facts that three students have died at the school. The letter advised that using a wider interpretation of the ADA instead of the law that is specifically for individuals who live in institutions.

For over twenty years disability advocates have been trying to bring reform to the school. The State of Massachusetts had tried without sucess to close the school, or bar the use of the GED.  Bills have been brought in the Massachusetts Legislature, yet blocked as a legislator who has a relative at the school. A independent investigation in New York State has led to the reduction of some aversives, but nothing has stopped JRC from using shocks against it's students with autism or autism spectrum disorders.

There has been some coverage of the DoJ investigation. The Boston Globe ran a story, as did the Washington Post, and Mother Jones mentioned it on their blog, as they did a huge article in one of their magazines.  The Boston Globe also ran a completely misinformed op-ed which Lawrence Harmon wrote after a brief visit to the school.  Almost immediately, The Huffington Post posted a well thought out response to the Harmon Op-ed. As of this writing, over 200 comments have been left on the Harmon Op-Ed, which seem to have come down to various family members of students defending the school, and many of the people who signed the letter to the Department of Justice.

Recently, it has been discovered that the Disney company is considering a lawsuit because many of the images on the official JRC website have Disney Characters promenently displayed.

Additional links:

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center website

The Boston Globe Op-Ed

The Huffington Post Op-Ed