The Judge Rotenberg Education Center (JRC) is a private residential facility for children, teens, and young adults with mental and/or behavioral problems, located in Canton, Massachusetts. Until recent years JRC accepted only youth considered to be "hopeless cases" (those with severe autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and various forms of emotional disturbance). Today, children with relatively minor disorders like ADHD and OCD are housed there as well.
Established as the Behaviour Research Institute in 1971 by Harvard-educated psychologist Dr. Matthew Israel, the "school" relies solely on aversion therapy and rewards to train its "students" out of unwanted behaviours. Psychotherapy and psychiatric meds are unavailable to residents; the JRC doesn't even have a psychiatrist on staff. Israel experimented with numerous aversive techniques (spanking, white noise, pinching and muscle squeezing, ammonia) before settling on electric shock as the best way to deal with target behaviours. JRC has used it ever since, in addition to the other techniques. At first, residents were given mild .2-second shocks from a commercially available device called the Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System, produced by Human Technologies. But when one 12-year-old boy was given 5000 of these shocks in a single day, Israel requested a more powerful device from Human Technologies. The company refused. So Israel designed his own devices, one which administers a strong 2-second shock and a device that is three times more powerful, capable of delivering shocks up to 91 milliamperes (stun guns go up to 20 milliamperes, maximum). Both models of this Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) are in use at JRC. Nearly half of JRC's 200-plus residents are wired for electric shock, including children as young as 9.
Israel argues that shock is a consistent and effective means of behaviour modification, with no side effects. But while most JRC parents are relieved that their children's behaviour is under control, there don't seem to be any longterm benefits for the children themselves. Five of the six residents featured in Israel's promotional film Before and After are still at JRC, despite the almost miraculous "after" effects of aversive conditioning depicted in the film. One of the film's two autistic women, now in her forties, still wears a helmet. The other woman has been wired for electric shock half her life.
In 2006 The New York State Education Department issued a regulation stating that schoolchildren can't be given electric shocks for minor infractions. Parents of New York Rotenberg residents promptly filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the regulation from being instituted, even though JRC is a "school" only in the most tortured sense of the word. Schooling is limited to self-instruction on computers; there is no hands-on work, no discussion, and certainly no field trips.
The same year, a parent's lawsuit sparked public hearings on JRC's use of electric shock. No policy changes resulted.
Parents have twice banded together to protest proposed shutdowns of JRC, once in the '80s and once in the '90s.
A sister school now called Tobinworld was opened in California in 1977, and is still run by Israel's wife, Judy Weber. Tobinworld stopped using physical punishments in 1982, after 14-year-old Danny Aswad died while strapped facedown on his bed and a Social Services report complained of welts, cuts, and bruises on other residents.
The death of Danny Aswad was not an isolated incident. To date, there have been six deaths at JRC, two of them preventable:
- 1985: 22-year-old autistic man Vincent Milletich asphyxiated while in restraints and helmeted.
- 1990: 19-year-old Linda Cornelison was physically punished over a 4-hour period for refusing to eat. As it turned out, she had a perforated stomach and died hours later. Cornelison had the mental capacity of a toddler and was unable to speak.