Private school under fire for unethical treatment

Photo courtesy of Judge Rotenberg Center

At first glance, the Judge Rotenberg Center, a private school in Canton, Massachusetts, seems like a paradise for disabled teens and their families. 

Asserting the effectiveness of their treatments for intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances, the school boasts a non-expulsion policy, a community for anyone older than five and a rewards system tailored to each student’s individual therapy plan.

It may seem unfitting that the center faces yet another legal battle for said treatments. 

Jennifer Msumba, now a blogger and musician, recounts instances of food deprivation and pain from the most well-known, yet controversial therapy at the center. 

The GED, or the Graduated Electronic Decelerator, remains one of the most heavily criticized forms of behavioral modification therapy. This device administers a shock to any student who commits vaguely defined abnormal behavior. No, this is not the evolving electroconvulsive therapy method, but a physical penalization. The lack of guidelines for said penalization allows for serious corruption. 

Students report being shocked for minor offenses or behavior that isn't even pathological. Failing to respond quickly, saying the word “no” and tics all result in painful treatment that staff and officials tout as therapy.

Therapy is a generous word for the center's practices. It can be said that the shocks temporarily end some behaviors, like self-harm or violence. Again, these pain-induced corrections also understandably aggravate anxiety and fear of the abuse to come.

Stories of restraints and prolonged shocks fill blogs and empathetic articles. Security footage depicts literal torture. Somehow, the center survives on the desperation of parents and the apathy of legal and political officials who act as proponents of these Draconian practices.

It’s time to look beyond short-term solutions that do nothing but suppress the low functioning and emotionally distressed. Students learn quickly that their tics and idiosyncrasies are not only abnormal, but deserve harsh corrections. These punishments are not well-meaning. They are not used as a last resort. Reports from former students detail the severe pain of these shocks and frivolousness exercised in doling them out.

Strangely enough, Autism Speaks, a nonprofit that advertises its support system for people and families with autism, cites the Judge Rotenberg Center as a possible resource. The voices of parents and former students barely permeate public discussion. New York City taxpayers spent $30 million on this facility in 2014 with little to no awareness. The culpable Autism Speaks remains a hero in the country’s eye.

Everyone, regardless of mental health, should be questioning the sociological effect that this cruelty has on the stigma surrounding autism and mental illnesses. Whether these people are high-functioning or nonverbal, the center seeks to divide the neurotypical from anything remotely eccentric. Their attitude alienates a growing part of our country. The GED gives these proponents undue power. Unequipped to navigate the complexities of troubled individuals, they resort to antiquated and cruel methods to silence dissenters and the vulnerable.