Cheryl McCollins got her first hint that something was wrong when she answered her phone on the evening of October 25, 2002. “Andre had a bad day.” It was a case manager calling from the residential school her son attended in Massachusetts, roughly 215 miles away. Cheryl had received calls like this before, but the news tonight was nearly incomprehensible: That day, her son had received 31 electric shocks as punishment for misbehaving.
“Thirty-one?!” gasped Cheryl, standing in her kitchen in Brooklyn. “What did he do?”
Andre, 18 years old, had been diagnosed with mental retardation, and for the past twenty months he’d been living at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A school of last resort for troubled children and adults, the Rotenberg Center runs a controversial behavior-modification program, where the repertoire of punishments includes painful electric shocks.
It’s easy to tell which students are hooked up to the shock device: They’re the ones with backpacks. The device stays hidden inside, with wires extending from the backpack, running beneath their clothes, and attaching to electrodes strapped to their arms and legs. Staffers carry remote-control activators; when students display certain “targeted behaviors”—like hitting, yelling, or trying to remove their electrodes—an employee presses a button to deliver a two-second shock.
Cheryl had agreed to let the school’s staff attach this device to her son, figuring it might help control his behavior better than the Risperdal or Clonidine he’d taken. By now, he had been hooked up to it for seven months, and she could tell it scared him: When he’d leave the school with her wearing the device, all she had to do was hold up the activator to get him to stop misbehaving.
But what had happened today? She’d never heard of him getting more than one or two shocks in a day. When the case manager explained to her that Andre had an “uncontrolled episode,” she assumed he must have done something extraordinarily bad. Maybe he’d been breaking furniture. Or maybe he’d been hitting or biting the staff.
The next day, a Saturday, she called Andre’s residence and asked a worker to put him on the phone. “I’m s-s-s-sorry,” Andre said. “Help me.” She could hear terror in his voice; he didn’t usually stutter. When she called back on Sunday, he didn’t say anything. All she could make out was the sound of his sobbing.
On Monday, she traveled to Canton, a suburb of Boston, to bring Andre back to New York. In the past, whenever she’d visited, he had been alert, talking, excited to see her. Today she found him slumped in a chair, not moving, wrists tethered to his waist. She screamed his name, but he didn’t turn. When she moved her hand in front of his face, he didn’t blink.
“He’s catatonic!” she shouted.
With the help of three staffers, she got Andre into a van and headed off to Boston Children’s Hospital. A doctor in the emergency room told her he might have post-traumatic-stress disorder, and the hospital admitted him.
The next day, Cheryl returned to the Rotenberg Center to find out exactly what had happened. She knew the place was wired with surveillance cameras, and she demanded to see the footage. In a conference room, she, her sister, and a friend sat down with four senior staffers and Andre’s psychologist to watch the tape. Cheryl expected to see Andre sprinting around and wreaking havoc while employees tried to stop him with shocks. Instead, the footage showed him tied face down to a four-point restraint board, each limb held in place by a locked cuff, his head encased in a helmet. She learned he had been held in this position for six hours, hollering and pleading whenever he got another shock.
Cheryl turned to the school’s officials. “Why are you shocking him?” she asked. “He’s tied down. He can’t hurt anyone.”
Robert von Heyn, then the director of psychology, explained that Andre had been shocked for “tensing up” his body, which was considered an unhealthy behavior.
Shocking someone for tensing up? This made no sense to Cheryl, and the more of the tape she saw, the madder she got. Sensing her growing rage, her sister nudged her hard beneath the table, as if to say: “Don’t let them see you get too angry, because they’ll destroy the tape.”
In the days and weeks after this meeting, Cheryl told everyone what had happened to her son: the police at the local precinct; the lawyers she called trying to find someone to help her sue the school; the doctors and nurses at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she next took Andre. Everyone had the same response: “They did what? Can we see this tape?” But she didn’t have the videotape—just a haunting memory of what she’d seen.