Cheryl McCollins gave birth to Andre, her only child, in 1984. She was 16, and in those early years, she raised him with the help of her mother in a house they shared in Lefferts Gardens. The first inkling she got that something was not quite right came when Andre was an infant. Every time she took him to the pediatrician, she discovered he’d missed another milestone: rolling over, tracking with his eyes, sitting up.
She enrolled him in the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Brooklyn when he was 2. At age 5, he moved to a special-ed classroom in a public school. Despite his developmental disabilities—a test later pegged his IQ at 50—Cheryl did everything she could to help him have a normal childhood. She took him out to restaurants; tried to teach him how to shoot baskets; pedaled alongside him in the park while he zipped around on Rollerblades.
It wasn’t easy trying to support them both on a nurse’s salary—she and Andre’s father had long since split up—and as the years rolled by, the job of raising Andre became ever more challenging. If she forgot to lock the gate, he might run away; once he was gone all night. He often talked to himself. When he got upset, he’d break things. Or he would kick or hit. At age 10, he was hospitalized in psych wards three times for rage attacks.
Doctors gave him myriad diagnoses: not only mental retardation, but also pervasive developmental disorder (of which autism is one form) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, impulse-control disorder, and conduct disorder. His condition became so severe that Cheryl decided to send him to a residential school in Dutchess County when he was 10. By 12, he was on his second school, this time in Pennsylvania, where she visited almost every week. He was there for more than three years, until the fall of 2000, when she heard that another boy had sexually assaulted him.
She called the Board of Education for help finding a new school, and an employee told her about the Rotenberg Center. Stepping inside for the first time, Cheryl was dazzled by the décor. There was nothing institutional about this place; the carpet felt five inches thick. “I thought the place was beautiful,” she recalls. “I thought these people really took pride in what they did.” She loved that residents lived in lavishly decorated houses—not dorms. The boys wore button-down shirts and dress pants. And there were surveillance cameras everywhere; she couldn’t imagine a better way to ensure that Andre wouldn’t be victimized again.
School officials told her about their program and explained how the electric-shock device works. The staffers showed her a video, too, of other students who’d been hooked up to the GED and appeared to have been completely transformed by it. “I was so excited,” she says. “I was like, ‘He’s going to be cured? This can really stop all those behaviors, the aggression? And he won’t break up my furniture, he won’t fight?’ ‘Yes, this device does it.’ I was like, ‘Wow! You’re kidding! Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?’ ”
When he entered the Rotenberg Center, in February of 2001, Andre McCollins was 16 years old. A report by a psychologist described him as a “well-groomed young man with a pleasant disposition” who spoke of “wanting to get his driver’s license, becoming a police officer, and having a girlfriend.” It also noted, however, that he “expressed a fear of strangers and of being hurt by others.”
Rotenberg officials needed a number of approvals, including from parents and a local court, before they could use their electric-shock device on a new student. They went to court to obtain this permission for Andre nine months after he arrived, and in March 2002 they outfitted him with the shock device. His “treatment plan,” which was approved by his psychologist, eventually listed 29 behaviors for which he would receive a shock. These included aggressive acts (like kicking or biting), nonviolent acts (screaming, any attempt to remove his electrodes), and also “health-dangerous behaviors” (including tensing up his entire body).
Over the next six months, Andre received one or two shocks during a typical week. Many weeks he got none at all. And one week in September, he received a shock though he’d done nothing wrong, which is known as a “misapplication.”
Israel was a fierce critic of psychotropic medications because of their potentially harmful side effects and overuse, and most Rotenberg Center residents were weaned off these drugs. The school had taken Andre off his Risperdal after he arrived—with his mother’s consent—then restarted it when he began acting bizarrely. After he started wearing a backpack containing the shock device, a psychiatrist weaned him off the Risperdal once again.