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31 Shocks Later

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An electrode attached to a student’s leg.   

Over and over, she replayed in her mind her meeting with the school officials, wishing she’d thought to demand a copy of the tape before storming out the door. At the time, she had no way of knowing that it would take nearly ten years—until the spring of 2012—before she would finally be able to push this video into the public eye.

Matthew Israel, the founder of the Rotenberg Center, was a freshman at Harvard in 1950 when he signed up for a course called Human Behavior. It was taught, as he later recalled, by “someone named Skinner.” Israel was merely trying to fill his science requirement, but after listening to the lessons of B. F. Skinner, the ­pioneer of behavioral psychology, he was hooked. He went to graduate school ­under Skinner and got a Ph.D. in 1960. And he became such a devotee that he started two communal houses inspired by Walden Two, Skinner’s utopian novel about an experimental community run on the principles he’d developed.

After Israel’s communal houses fizzled, he founded the Behavior Research Institute in Rhode Island in 1971. His idea was to use the lessons he’d learned from Skinner to try to help autistic and mentally ­retarded children, employing an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. Israel specialized in treating children nobody else knew what to do with: ones who smashed their heads against the floor, attacked their caretakers, broke the family TV.

At first there were no electric shocks. Israel and his workers relied instead on other “aversive treatments”: pinching the soles of their feet, squirting them in the face with water, forcing them to sniff ammonia. One student’s punishment for biting: ten spanks on the buttocks, a cool shower, ten “rolling pinches” on the arm, and a time-out wearing a “white-noise helmet.” New York State sent its first student to Israel in 1976.

A few years later, New York State officials did an inspection. “Superficially … the program is very impressive,” they wrote in a subsequent report. “Children, who are obviously handicapped, are engaged in activities and are seldom exhibiting inappropriate behaviors.” But, they concluded, “the children are controlled by the threat of punishment. When that threat is removed, they revert to their original behaviors.” Ultimately, the officials found the program’s effect on its students to be “the singular most depressing experience that team members have had in numerous visitations to human-service programs.”

Fifteen students from New York were in Israel’s care in December 1978, when the New York State Education Department ordered him to stop using physical punishments. The State later threatened to pull its kids if he didn’t comply. But the parents fought back, praising Israel for performing “miracles” on their children. A father from Staten Island told the New York Times that “the results are staggering.” Israel’s program seemed like a godsend to those parents who had few other options, whose children had been rejected or expelled from many other places. And in instances when their children’s behavior was extremely self-destructive—trying to gouge out their eyes, banging their heads so often they were at risk of brain damage—some parents credited Israel with saving lives.

Eventually he moved the entire operation to Massachusetts and renamed it the Judge Rotenberg Center, after the judge who handed him a key legal victory in the eighties, permitting him to keep using physical punishments. Israel began using electric shocks on his students in the early nineties; he invented his own shock device, and the Rotenberg Center is the only place in the country that uses it.

The center has weathered criticism from special-ed experts, psychologists, state regulators, and disability advocacy groups. Some critics believe no student should ever be shocked, while others accuse Israel of overusing his device, shocking kids for ­behaviors as minor as swearing. (Israel did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Over the years, Israel created an environment so tightly controlled—and so unusual—that it seemed to have little relationship to the outside world. Every aspect of the Rotenberg Center was extreme, from its rewards program (he created an elaborate video arcade, part of the “Big Reward Store,” for kids who were well behaved) to its Disney-like décor (two aluminum dogs with neon-purple collars, each almost five feet tall, stood by the entrance). And the school even had its own vocabulary: Its shock device was known as the “graduated electronic decelerator” or GED. Staffers didn’t shock residents but instead gave them GED “applications.”

Israel sought to control not only his residents’ behavior but also the employees’. He wired his entire facility with surveillance cameras, which he used to make sure his employees were administering his program correctly. A team of staffers—known as “monitors”—watched these cameras 24/7. And he instituted a program encouraging employees to tell on their co-workers by writing up evaluations about one ­another. Negative write-ups were called “performance improvement opportunities” or PIOs. They ranged from a “friendly reminder” (“Please remember to follow staff dress code”) to “severe” (“failure to follow JRC policies”). Employees who received too many serious PIOs could find themselves out of a job.


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