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What's the Plus?

End the Use of Electric Shocks in Massachusetts School

By Suzanne Stillinger

As we headed toward the cubbies in our small classroom after a chilly morning outside in December, I reminded my students to hang up their coats on their hooks before washing their hands for lunch. While his classmates chatted and moved quickly, Kevin stood silently facing his cubby, jacket still on. I knelt down closer to him and said, “I notice that you’re still at your cubby and your jacket is still on. Do you need some help?” Kevin did not move. “I wonder if you’d like to keep your jacket on for a while.” He nodded, still looking at his cubby. “Sounds good, friend. Let’s wash those hands and have lunch.” This kind of scene plays out in schools across the state every day, a moment in which a child needs a little flexibility during a transition from one part of the day to the next. This is true of all children and can be especially true for autistic children like Kevin. I understand this not only as his teacher but because I am autistic as well. As Kevin sat down calmly for lunch in his favorite puffy coat, I thought about another autistic student at a very different school across the state.

When Andre McCollins did not respond to a staff member’s request to take off his jacket at school, he was tied face-down to a restraint board and shocked repeatedly for over six hours with a device powerful enough to leave burns on his skin as he screamed, “Help me! Help! Help!” This type of scene has played out again and again over the course of decades at the Judge Rotenberg School (JRC) in Canton, MA, using a practice the United Nations condemned as “torture” when investigating the use of electric shock devices on their students. With mounting evidence–including testimony from students and teachers, as well as from experts in the field of education and behavioral consulting–that these electric devices are ineffective and abusive even when used as intended, and that they are often used well outside of the boundaries of their stated use, multiple attempts by state and federal legislators to end the use of aversive electric shock on our students in Massachusetts have been unsuccessful.

This year, there is new legislation introduced by Rep. Danielle W. Gregoire that would “prohibit the use of procedures which cause physical pain or deny a reasonable humane existence to persons with disabilities” in the state. The JRC has made repeated claims that their shock devices are effective and safe, and are the only reliable means to prevent students from engaging in self-injurious behaviors, and they do so to the tune of $275,000 per student per year, largely taxpayer funded. What would it have cost to allow Andre McCollins to just wear his jacket indoors?

In my school, Kevin sat eating his lunch and listening to a teacher read to the class, wearing the coat that helped him feel comfortable. There’s nothing particularly special about that moment at Kevin’s cubby. Teachers make these small adjustments every second of the school day because we understand that all humans have different needs, and that we all deserve to have our needs met. Behavior is communication, and the self-injurious behavior that the JRC’s methods are designed to address is the direct result of a failure to understand and meet students’ needs, resulting in at least six preventable deaths and immeasurable suffering.

According to the FDA, the school’s methods cause “a number of significant psychological and physical risks [including] worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.” When used as intended, these “treatments” simply trade one type of injury for another, and there is no evidence for any long-term benefit if the shock device is no longer used on a day-to-day basis. In fact, students’ behavior improves when aversive shocks are halted for weeks at a time. It is long past time to end this barbaric practice in our state.

I watched Kevin and wondered how different things would be for him if he did not have access to the kind of flexibility our classroom can offer, that allows him to feel calm and regulated rather than melting down because his needs are unmet. What would have happened if he were at the JRC, with a battery pack and electrodes strapped to him with the potential to deliver a shock more powerful than a cattle prod? Massachusetts students need and deserve our protection and care. You can help by contacting your local representatives as well as the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, Senator Adam Gomez and Representative Michael J. Finn, both of Springfield. No student, no matter their neurotype or disability, no matter their behavior, deserves to be treated inhumanely.

Suzanne Stillinger an early childhood educator at Farm Hands Preschool in Northampton. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.

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