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31 Shocks Later


Matthew Israel, founder of the Judge Rotenberg Center, in 2010 in the Crystal Forest on Rewards Street, one of the rooms visited by students who behave well. Beside him is a doll of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.   

To calm Andre so they could remove him from the restraint board, workers tried to set up what they call “behavioral contracts” with him. A female employee crouched beside him and in a peppy voice offered him potential rewards:

“Want some French toast and bacon?”

“Do you want some orange juice?”

“Do you want some soda?”

Soaked with sweat, he continued thrashing and screaming—“No! No! No!”—though eventually he began to quiet down. By 4:20 p.m., the employees had moved him off the board and onto a chair, but he was not himself. He wouldn’t speak, and he wouldn’t eat.

Over the next few years, the Judge Rotenberg Center continued to expand. Israel sent recruiters to New York State and elsewhere to try to drum up referrals, and he began ­taking in many more of what he called “higher-functioning” kids: students who are not autistic or mentally retarded but have diagnoses like attention-deficit disorder or bipolar disorder. Between 2000 and 2005, the facility’s annual revenues grew from $18 million to more than $50 million. By 2006, New York State supplied nearly 60 percent of Israel’s residents—and about $30 million a year. (The annual cost per student was $220,000.)

In the fall of 2006, I visited while working on a story for another publication, and I found the place packed with teenagers from New York City, many from poor neighborhoods. One 15-year-old girl said she recognized other kids from her days in Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s adolescent psych ward. Two young men said they’d come straight from Rikers.

As new teenagers flooded into the facility, pushing its total population above 230, Andre McCollins was all but forgotten. But the events of October 25, 2002, haunted at least one employee: a case manager named Allen Gwynn. He’d been inside Classroom 15 that day—and he couldn’t forget how Andre had appeared when he was taken off the restraint board. “He looked like he was gone, like they’d beat him and broke him,” he says. “It just didn’t seem right.”

To clear his head, Gwynn wrote a brief essay detailing some of his misgivings about his job, including that Andre “went into a catatonic state.” He stored his writings at home and kept his mouth shut at work; he didn’t want to lose his job. But when his marriage collapsed near the end of 2006 and he moved out of his home, he left behind a box of student case files.

His wife told him to fetch the box or she’d take it to the Rotenberg Center. What she didn’t know was that it also contained his personal writings. He didn’t pick up the box; she made good on her promise; and after Gwynn’s bosses read his words, Israel ordered him fired. When Gwynn filed a complaint with a state agency protesting his firing, a lawyer for the Judge Rotenberg Center defended its decision in a letter, explaining “Gwynn was terminated for not sharing the JRC philosophy.”

Soon after she saw the video of her son’s shocking, Cheryl McCollins started cold-calling lawyers and eventually found her way to Lubin & Meyer, a medical-­malpractice firm in Boston. This past April, with Lubin & Meyer representing her, Cheryl’s lawsuit against the Rotenberg Center went to trial in a courtroom in Dedham, Massachusetts. The suit accused Israel, Andre’s psychologist, and the center’s then–director of psychology of being negligent in their treatment of Andre.

The Rotenberg Center’s attorneys tried to prevent the video of Andre’s shocking from becoming public, but Cheryl and her lawyers prevailed. When the lawyers played snippets on the TV in the courtroom, the judge permitted Fox 25 to record it. Night after night, local TV news stations aired footage of Andre being shocked.

On the afternoon of April 20, Matthew Israel, now 78, stepped onto the witness stand. He wore a black suit and a tie, and in a calm, deliberate voice, he defended the school he’d founded 41 years earlier, his hands resting on the oak barrier in front of him. Cheryl watched from the front row, a well-worn copy of the Bible tucked inside her purse on the bench beside her.

Israel admitted he had barely known Andre. “What comes to my attention generally would be the problem students,” he said. And, by Rotenberg standards at least, Andre was not especially problematic. “He was doing so well.” Cheryl’s attorney, Benjamin Novotny, asked Israel why he didn’t check on Andre in the days after he’d been shocked, when he was barely eating or walking or talking. “I did not have a reason to believe there was a special need for me to go in and look at him,” Israel said.

Today, Israel no longer runs the Rotenberg Center. He was forced to give up the position last year after being indicted in the same courthouse for obstructing justice. Those criminal charges stemmed from an unrelated incident dating back to 2007. One night that summer, a former student from New York had prank-called a Rotenberg residence at 2 a.m., pretending he was an employee in the monitoring department. He claimed to have seen three boys misbehaving earlier in the evening, and he ordered the workers to pull them out of bed and shock them. The employees complied. In the rec room, they tied two teenagers onto a restraint board and began shocking them.


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