Judge Rotenberg Center

Painful but Important Reading on Schools, the Judge Rotenberg Center, and Mental Illness

There are things that hurt me so much that it hurts me to share them with you. Here are three of the ones that are so important I need you try to read them anyway, sometime when you can.

1) Disabled-- and Handcuffed at School by S.E. Smith

Smith lays out exactly why schools are getting more and more dangerous for students with autism and otehr disabilities-- and why current trends will only make them worse:

Simply put, districts also need more trained staff on hand. Teachers handling mainstreamed classes require support to balance the needs of their disabled and nondisabled students and to make sure that every student is provided with the educational material and assistance he or she needs. Without staff support, students inevitably begin to fall through the cracks, and one consequence of that can be an increase in disruptive behavior. Overburdened instructors may fail to identify the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown, for instance, making it difficult for them to intervene early on – before things have escalated beyond their capacity to deal with them. And even if they do spot a troubled student who needs more personalized attention, that level of engagement can often be impossible to provide in a classroom with 25 or more additional students vying for their attention. Trained staff can help mediate situations like these.

Another issue that came up again and again with educators who spoke to AlterNet was the impact of our increasing reliance on standardized testing to measure performance in the classroom. High-stakes testing creates a highly pressured environment for teachers, who are forced to focus on the tests rather than on their students’ learning needs – especially if the teachers don’t have tenure or secure positions in their districts. All students, regardless of disability status, suffer in this environment, where teachers are asked to view students not as individuals, but as aggregate test scores.

Bottom-up educational reform often focuses on teachers and blames them for the failures of the educational system. But this approach largely ignores the structural issues plaguing many districts as they fight for funding, cut student and staff services, and live in fear of the latest test results and what they mean for the school’s future. For students with disabilities, these issues are further complicated by the need to access a functional educational environment where they will be safe from harm and not at risk of run-ins with the police. In this educational landscape, it’s hard for disabled students to learn, let alone realize their full potential.


2) Letters from inside the Judge Rotenberg center

Lydia Brown recently published two letters from people with personal experience inside the Judge Rotenberg Center, a school where students are punished with electric shocks.

From a former student:

     We are at the mercy of guardians and judges. When I was brought to court to be approved for the GED, I was not told where we were going or why. I was brought into the courtroom wearing a helmet and restraints on my wrists and ankles.  I was not questioned by the judge.  All he had to go on was my appearance in those restraints, testimony from JRC officials, and charts of provoked behaviors. These behaviors came from being forced to sit in isolation with a straight upright posture, in the center of a hard restraint board, day after day, week after week, for two months. I received no real help and no socialization. For those two months I was not allowed to sit in a chair, at the classroom or residence. I was to sit on the board. Also, JRC provoked me by not allowing me to shower during those two months. Instead of showers, I was bathed tied to a restraint board, naked, while staff washed me, putting their hands all over me. All in front of cameras, where Monitoring watched, including men.  Being tied on a restraint board, naked, with my private areas exposed to the staff in the bathroom and the cameras was the most horrible, vulnerable, frightening experience for me. I would scream out “rape, rape!” And these were recorded as major behaviors for me. When I first arrived at JRC, I was immediately subjected to humiliation and provocation by them forcing me to wear a diaper. I in NO WAY needed or have ever needed a diaper as an adult. I am completely independent in all toilet and hygiene skills. And they knew that. I had NEVER worn a diaper up until that day, except of course when I was a little baby. And that is exactly how they made me feel, like a little baby. I was embarrassed and confused and angry. I took that diaper off constantly. When I would take the diaper off they would mark that down on my chart that they would later show the judge as destructive behavior. I would often get restrained on the 4 point board for taking off the diaper and fighting staff not to make me put it back on. In these ways and more, JRC provoked many behaviors in me that were shown on a chart to the judge. There is no way the judge could know what was provoking my behaviors. JRC told the judges that their program was the only thing that could help me. That theirs is the only last resort treatment.

From a former teacher:

I can testify to the absolute horror of Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons (BRLs) where a student, in front of his 40 classmates, was left in a restraint chair (including cuffs to his arms and legs and a strap to his waist), in a very hot and thick restraint jacket, and in a restraint helmet, altogether at the same time, all day long, so that he would be helpless to defend himself during BRL surprise-attacks that occurred three to five days per week.  A staff would rush in at various times during the school-day, yelling and screaming while entering the room and racing to the student, and place either a plastic knife or a metal spoon to the student’s mouth, and yell, “Do you want to swallow a knife?  Do you want to swallow a knife?”  The staff would hold the plastic knife to the student’s mouth in a life-threatening manner, the student would scream loudly as though it was his last breath, and another staff somewhere in the room would push a hidden remote control button to shock this student who was already physically helpless to move his body an inch in any direction while being attacked. 

Having worked extensively with this student, mostly at the school and also at the student’s residence, I can testify that a long time prior to the incident when this student swallowed a small X-acto knife blade, this student was very proud of his wooden models and knife kit that Dr. Matthew Israel had personally arranged for him to have.  This was after a long history of the student (like many other students with disabilities) swallowing sharp and inedible objects.
Jones talks about her fears as the mother of a young man who has severe mental illness. She does not sensationalize. She does not claim to be anyone else's mother. She just lays out the reality:

If we don’t pay for treatment for people with mental illness, that doesn’t mean we won’t eventually pay for people with mental illness. The difference is, instead of paying for health care, education, housing, and other programs that meet real needs on the front end, we pay for the disastrous consequences on the back end: police, jails, prisons, and long-term institutionalization. The largest provider of mental health care services in the world is the US correctional system, and many people with serious mental illness only receive treatment for their conditions when they are incarcerated. People who could live successful lives with appropriate supports instead become homeless, end their lives, or use illicit drugs to endure the relentless and unbearable symptoms of their illnesses between stints in jail.

Almost no family has all the resources necessary to meet the needs of a person with serious mental illness so we have to do it together, with social programs. We’re are paying, and we’re paying big, but we’re spending our money on the wrong end. My insurance company resists paying for treatment that Carter needs now, but taxpayers will insist that someone pay for a prison cell if he hurts someone in the throes of a psychotic episode someday. Republicans don’t want to fund the expensive special education programs that kids like Carter require, but we sure as hell want cops to keep homeless people from hanging around the entrances to our favorite restaurants.

Almost all of us invest time and money into toothbrushes and regular dental care because we know that it’s cheaper and nicer than having rotten teeth falling out of our heads. We pay the people at Jiffy Lube to change our oil every 3,000 miles because we know it’s far less expensive than letting the engine seize. We hang smoke detectors in hour homes because we don’t want to be burned to death in the night. We have the good sense to recognize that some prevention in the beginning, even if it’s inconvenient and expensive, is almost always easier and cheaper than dealing with the disaster that will come later if we don’t.

Classrooms are cheaper than cops, trials, and prison cells. A hospital bed for a month at the beginning of a psychiatric crisis makes lots more sense than a jail cell for a year after a full psychotic break. This argument about whether or not to pay is nonsense; we are already paying, but we’re throwing our money down an immoral and inhumane suck hole. If the notions of morality and humanity don’t mean much to you, consider this: the return on our investment could be infinitely better.


“He looked like he was gone, like they’d beat him and broke him”

New York Magazine gives Andre McCollins the kind of attention and respect he never got when he was at the Judge Rotenberg Center.  Jennifer Gonnerman, who detailed the history of the JRC for Mother Jones in 2007, tells how the autistic teenager ended up at the Center, which uses electrical shocks to control the behavior of students-- he had been sexually abused at another facility and his mother Cheryl thought he would be safe because of all the cameras.

She did not know he would end up being shocked 31 times in a single day.  She ended up suing the JRC and an getting undisclosed settlement.  Andre, as one former employee recalled, seemed permanently damaged:

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.”

The story is an important read, and I am moved by the portrait of Andre by Andres Serrano which illustrates it.  Thanks to my friend Gaetano, who closely follows the JRC, for sharing this and many other important stories.


Watch: Interviews with Judge Rotenberg Center Parent and Student

I want to thank my friend Gaetano for directing me to this fascinating and disturbing feature on the Judge Rotenberg Center. Al Jazeera examines the JRC, which uses electrical shocks to punish students, from all angles.  They spoke with Cheryl McCollins, the woman who settled a lawsuit with the school over her autistic son Andre being tied down and shocked 32 times in less than one day.  They spoke with JRC lawyer Michael Flammia and UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez.

But two conversations are especially interesting.

Click here to watch the videos of them.

No Ban on Shocks at Judge Rotenberg Center

Yesterday, the Massachusetts legislature passed its budget without an amendment that would have banned the use of electrical shocks as punishments at the Judge Rotenberg Center:

State Sen. Brian A. Joyce, who has pressed for a ban for years, said he was "incredibly disappointed once again."

"The pervasive influence of money from lawyers and lobbyists and public relations specialists trumps our moral obligation to protect innocent disabled children at the Judge Rotenberg Center," he told FOX Undercover.

Click here to watch a news video.

U.N. Official Discusses Accusations of Torture at School for Autistic People

Fox25 in Boston continued their superb reporting on the Judge Rotenberg Center by talking to Juan Mendez, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture, about his investigation into the use of electrical shocks at the JRC:

Mendez knows well the subject of torture. He was a human rights lawyer during Argentina's dirty way, and was himself tortured with electricity.

Mendez is investigating after receiving a complaint from Disability Rights International, which examines treatment of the disabled around the world, including a 2010 report highly critical of the Judge Rotenberg Center.

"I imagine this isn't the typical type of complaint regarding torture that you receive?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked Mendez.

"No it isn't," Mendez replied. "Most cases I receive are about torture in the course of interrogations, for example, or for reasons of punishment. But the definition I have to operate under is very clear: that any pain and suffering inflicted on a person with the participation or complicity of state authorities might give rise to a concern under the (United Nations) convention against torture and therefore to a concern under my mandate."

Click here to watch the video.

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