Complaints Allege Abuse at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center
The focus on the use of shock devices at the Judge Rotenberg Center overlooks the numerous reports of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that plague the institution.
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, also known as the “JRC,” is an institution for children and adults with behavioral issues which has come under fire for its use of aversive measures — namely, electric shock devices used to punish unwanted behavior — and was the subject of more than 400 complaints filed with the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) between 2005 and 2015, according to documents obtained via a public records request. While the Canton, Massachusetts-based program, which includes a school and dozens of residences in nearby cities, has become virtually inseparable from the phrase “shocks autistic kids,” little to no attention has been paid to the numerous reports of physical and psychological abuse.
However, the focus on the use of shock devices at the JRC is understandable — it’s the only institution in the United States that is permitted to use corporal punishment, or aversives, to modify behavior. Recently, an FDA panel recommended a full ban on electrical stimulation devices of precisely the sort used by the JRC.
In order to use their shock devices on a student, the JRC goes in front of a judge and makes the case that the devices are absolutely necessary to prevent severe harm such as self-injury.
The JRC was referenced in a total of 409 complaints between 2005 and 2015. That’s 37 complaints a year; one every ten days. 49% of complaints refer to the “program city” as “Canton,” the location of the school as well as several residences, suggesting that a large percentage of allegations involve incidents that occurred under the noses of the employees tasked with monitoring the enormous CCTV surveillance system that keeps watch over nearly every square inch of the institution. Residences are also wired with security cameras, enabling employees remotely monitoring the home to ensure that no behaviors go unpunished by contacting residential staff and directing them to administer a shock, if appropriate.
Of the five years for which the JRC was the subject of the largest number of complaints since 2005, three of those were in the past four years. In addition, these records were provided to me by the DPPC in December of 2015; it is plausible that the final number of complaints for this past year is at least as high as that of the year 2014.
Upon receiving a complaint about an institution, the DPPC fills out a form that summarizes the accusation(s), the parties involved, and then decides whether the allegations are substantiated, whether they should contact the District Attorney to investigate, and whether to contact another agency such as the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Disability Services, etc.
A review of the complaints shows that 32% of complaints were referred to a District Attorney, while 68% were not. Many allegations deemed to be “unsubstantiated” were not sent to the DA; however, many complaints that were decidedly “substantiated” and included clear instances of abuse were not referred to the DA for reasons that remain unclear.
Nearly half of all complaints involved abusive acts by staff, including physical, sexual, or psychological (including verbal) abuse; food restriction (such as preventing an individual from eating as a form of punishment); or illegitimate shock (administering a shock to an individual who does not have a court-approved behavior plan involving the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) device, or administering a shock for behaviors for which punishing with a shock is not court-approved).
Almost a third of allegations involve negligence by staff, such as neglect (frequently, this involved not seeking medical attention for students who were injured), illegitimate restraint (using unauthorized methods, such as choking or pulling hair, in order to get a student under control); and allowing students’ skin to become so burned by a shock device that it begins to blister.
Some complaints also involved staff misconduct that does not fall into either the negligence or abuse categories. Examples include: staff leaving the residence, teasing students, preventing students from participating in activities, preventing students from using the phone (e.g. to call the police or the DPPC to make a complaint) or not intervening when a student is abused by another student or staff member. There were also numerous reports of students being discovered with unexplained injuries, including bruises, scars, and even broken bones.
Many students also expressed fear of other students in their residence or at the school, suggesting that staff are not implementing necessary measures to prevent students from harming one another.
Looking closer at the type of abuse, we see that more than one in every four allegations involve physical abuse. These include: kicking, slapping, or punching students in the face, often in retaliation and/or while the student is restrained; tackling students or slamming them against a wall in order to restrain them; or otherwise intentionally causing pain, such as by bending back fingers.
Some individual complaints involved allegations of egregious physical abuse and illegitimate or unauthorized use of shock devices. Examples include: staff administering a shock for falling off the toilet; a student being restrained too tightly and shocked (without a court-approved behavior plan allowing shocks), causing the individual to feel lightheaded and experience symptoms of cognitive decline such as forgetfulness; a student being shocked for staring at his or her desk for more than five seconds; a student being shocked for standing up and asking to use the restroom (this is deemed “aggression”); using restraints as a form of punishment; taking students off medication in order to attempt to control behavior through shocks; using the shock device to the point where a student was burned so badly that the device had to be removed for a period of time, called a “GED vacation” by JRC staff; administering a shock because a student rolled her eyes; restraining a student for 12 hours; punching, choking, and pushing a student; sexually abusing students during a restraint; dragging a student instead of prompting; spitting in students’ faces; raping multiple students; ripping out a student’s earring; and much, much more.
There was one instance in which staff members were allegedly restraining another staff in order to prevent him from continuing to attack a student. Another instance included a claim that a student’s “skin was falling off” due to the GED device, although this was investigated by police and found to be untrue.
I picked a handful of allegations and requested the full complaints from the DPPC. The records reveal that the student who was alleged to have been experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline following unauthorized use of the GED device was expressing these symptoms for months. Below is an excerpt from the original complaint form (“ALV” indicates a student, while “ALAB” denotes staff).
These records also revealed more information regarding a complaint about a student receiving burns on their arms and legs due to the application of a GED device, causing the device to be removed for 4–6 weeks. Interestingly, the removal of the device was followed by a decrease in the student’s head banging — a behavior that is frequently met with electric shocks. The original complaint also mentions staff neglecting to seek medical attention for a student and attempting to cover it up by seeking appointments with different doctors.
One of the most disturbing allegations involves staff attempting to prevent a student from suicidal ideation by running at the student with a plastic knife and attempting to shove it down the student’s throat. At the same time, another staff will administer an electric shock so that the student will associate a knife in their throat with the pain of an electric shock. The person who reported this to the DPPC alleges that this “behavior plan” is court approved.
It also looks like the “GED vacation” instance referenced above was not an isolated incident, as others have reportedly seen firsthand the burn marks left by the shock devices.
Another allegation from a former employee at the JRC details the stress endured by students who not only receive shocks themselves, but who observe their fellow students receiving shocks. Many times, according to this former employee, a student’s reaction to observing a classmate being shocked was also met with a shock.
This same complaint also referenced an incident in which staff would periodically run at a student with a “plastic knife, ask him if he wanted to swallow a knife and then give him a [shock].” This student had allegedly swallowed a knife in the past. It is likely that this is a reference to the same incident in which staff would run at a student with a plastic knife and simultaneously deliver a shock. The former employee compared this to the movie A Clockwork Orange.
It is likely that the former employee who reported this to the DPPC is Greg Miller, who has become an outspoken critic of JRC’s practices after quitting due to stress. Meanwhile, Glenda Crookes, Executive Director at the JRC, has claimed that Miller never complained about the JRC while he was an employee there.
Also revealed is a previously reported incident in which a student on the run called a JRC residence and claimed to be an employee of the JRC monitoring the cameras. He claimed to have seen an individual engaging in inappropriate behaviors and instructed the residential staff to deliver shocks. The student — who did nothing wrong — underwent 77 shocks merely because somebody told the staff to do so.
Another complaint alleges that students are being punished for behaviors that are not dangerous. As previously mentioned, in order to use a shock device on a student the JRC must go to a judge and make the case that it is necessary in order to prevent worse harm than that caused by the shocks. This complaint suggests that this is not the case, and claims “[t]hey are using punishment on the [student] that [sic] are used for individuals who are aggressive or engaged in [self-injurious behavior].”
Yet another allegation similarly describes the use of the GED device for purposes that are unlikely to be court approved.
While the JRC claims that the devices don’t leave burn marks or cause skin to blister, several allegations suggest otherwise. For example, the following complaint references an “extremely red” area around a student’s waist, potentially causing the skin to open.
The following allegation suggests a pattern of food restriction as a form of punishment, and that the conditions at the JRC are causing her to “lose her mind,” and to be “violent and aggressive.”
Lastly, another complaint involves a student being shocked for unauthorized purposes, resulting in burns on her stomach. She was prevented from reporting this incident to anyone. She also injured herself and was denied medical care, resulting in complications. She claims to experience nightmares and is frightened when she hears the sound of velcro, likely because staff at JRC peel back velcro in order to access the remotes corresponding to the individual about to receive the GED shock.
In conclusion, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is infamous for its seemingly wanton use of electric shock to modify behavior, a practice that the United Nations considers torture. If the allegations over the past ten years are accurate, then the reputation is well-deserved. Staff at the JRC shock students for behaviors that are merely annoying, rather than only for the reasons specified in the behavior plans approved by the court. Further, staff at the JRC stretch the truth, shocking students for “precursors” to aggressive behaviors, which are construed to include a student standing up from her desk to ask to use the restroom. Most troubling is the fact that students are forced to watch their peers undergo electric shocks, and if they react fearfully to watching their friends experience excruciating pain, then they too will be shocked. To put it mildly, this is counterproductive on a good day.
The media has understandably focused on the administering of shocks at the JRC, but has consequently overlooked the numerous reports of physical abuse that don’t involve shocks — including staff punching, choking, and dragging students for no reason. While the use of the device is certainly horrifying, particularly when it causes burns to the skin, cognitive impairment, and Post Traumatic Stress, far more complaints involve physical abuse.
The JRC doesn’t exist in a vacuum. State agencies such as the DPPC, the Department of Disability Services, the Department of Mental Health, District Attorneys, and state and local police are tasked with oversight of institutions like the JRC as well as investigating criminal acts of abuse. One must wonder how, when there are so many allegations of abuse, an institution like the JRC can remain open. We must wonder why the DPPC found many claims to be substantiated but did not refer them to the District Attorney. We must wonder how many substantiated claims sent to the District Attorney were not followed up on, and why. And we must wonder why, with the JRC’s all-seeing eyes in the form of security cameras keeping watch over the school and residences, the previously mentioned agencies haven’t taken full advantage of their power to subpoena footage and charge the perpetrators with criminal abuse.
Don’t believe me? See the documents yourself.