Controversy resurfaces over use of shock treatment


I'm going to have to "take 5" and process the info before commenting on this behavior treatment method in a classroom..... Words fail me at the moment.

From the Boston Globe:

Remedy or abuse?
Controversy resurfaces over use of shock treatment at Canton school

By Erin Conroy, Globe Correspondent | September 13, 2007

A n investigative magazine article dubbing a Canton-based institution the "school of shock" has reignited efforts to pass legislation limiting the facility's use of skin shock and aversive therapy.

State legislators say the report in the September edition of Mother Jones has refocused the controversy surrounding the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, believed to be the only school in the country that gives children electric shocks as a form of treatment.

The 230-student facility treats children with autism, mental retardation, and emotional problems.

Senator Brian A. Joyce of Milton and Representative John W. Scibak of South Hadley are trying to move up hearings, now slated for January, on legislation that would limit aversive therapy to extreme cases of violent or self-injurious behavior, such as head banging or eye gouging, and create a special commission to regulate it.

Matt Israel, founder of the Rotenberg Center, acknowledges the controversy surrounding the use of shock therapy, but says the practice is crucial to treat severe mental illnesses. Israel said it is unfair of legislators to characterize the school's practices as unfettered because it is regulated by the Department of Mental Retardation, Department of Education, and Department of Early Education and Care, as well as judges in individual cases.

The Judge Rotenberg Center, which has students from at least seven states, is in Joyce's district. He said his staff has spent hundreds of hours researching the facility and its practices, including claims by critics that children are often shocked for relatively minor infractions such as cursing or speaking out of turn - behavior that, he said, is typical of most adolescents.

"The bottom line is, we have to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society," Joyce said. "We need to eliminate or severely limit any future application of this barbaric treatment on innocent children."

Aversive therapy - which uses a system of positive and negative reinforcements based on psychologist B.F. Skinner's behavior modification theory - is banned in 10 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island. Last year, Joyce filed a budget amendment to ban it in Massachusetts. It passed in the state Senate but not in the House.

Some state legislators, including Representatives Tom Sannicandro of Ashland and Barbara L'Italien of Andover, have denounced the institution's methods as cruel and outdated. Others say there are behaviors and illnesses that warrant shock therapy.

The release of the Mother Jones article is not the first time the Rotenberg Center has come under scrutiny. Massachusetts officials have investigated reports over the years that electric shocks delivered to misbehaving students caused burns on their arms, legs, or torsos. Regulators from New York, where more than half the students come from, have pressed the school to end electric shock.

The facility was also fined last year by the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure for falsely representing employees as licensed psychologists.

Israel told the Globe he thought the Mother Jones article, written by freelancer Jennifer Gonnerman, did a poor job of explaining the school's mission. He said that negative reinforcement for seemingly harmless behaviors is sometimes necessary for treatment, and that the article depicted certain incidents out of context.

"Sometimes in treating a behavior, you'll notice that it changes its form as it decreases in frequency," Israel said. "If you are treating someone who pulls hair out to the point of baldness, you'll pay attention when they are even pulling, tugging, or touching their hair. It may look innocuous, but if you don't treat it at that point in time, it will grow back to its original form."

"There are many well-intentioned people who oppose this form of therapy because they are unwilling to weigh the intrusiveness of it against the benefits," he said. "Just like any medical or dental procedure, you have to weigh the benefits and the risks."

Parents of children at the center also defend the treatment.

Marguerite Famolare's 19-year-old son, Michael Costello, has lived at the Rotenberg Center for six years. As a child, Michael was diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Famolare, who lives in Boston, said her son spent years bouncing back and forth from private institutions and psychiatric hospitals, and was lethargic from prescription drugs.

"He was given no opportunities and just slept all of the time. He was sedated and treated like an animal, and that wasn't the life I wanted for him," said Famolare. "Now he goes to Red Sox games, and he has friends that he relates to. He's learned to communicate with people and how to express himself, because of what they've done for him."

Famolare said she has tested the electronic shock administered on her son, and likens it to a bee sting. She said her son shows some discomfort when shocked, but no signs of trauma.

"This is better than he die from kidney or liver problems developed from prescription drugs, because that's what would've happened," she said. "The pain from the shock is no more than the pain he would have suffered from needles put into him with high dosages of those psychotropic drugs."

Scibak, who has a doctorate in developmental disabilities and is the former director of a psychiatric institute, sponsors Joyce's bills, but opposes a full ban on shock therapy. There are, he says, times when it is appropriate.

"People say it's cruel and unusual punishment, but I've seen people biting their fingers or tongue off, or banging their head against a wall until it splits open," he said. "How can a parent sit back and just watch their child bite their extremities off? In those situations, it would be cruel and unusual not to use these procedures."

Just how much pain the shocks cause is a matter of some disagreement.

Sannicandro, who sits on the Legislature's Joint Committee for Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said he tested the shock treatment himself and compared it to being electrocuted.

"It was unbelievable pain that felt like it was going on forever," said Sannicandro, who has a 23-year-old son with Down syndrome. "I can't imagine subjecting my child to this. It would be like living in a hell."

The Mother Jones article described an environment where teachers were fearful of being attacked and of losing their jobs for not shocking students enough.

Gregory Miller, who worked as a Rotenberg Center teacher's assistant from 2003 to 2006, told the Globe that most teachers found the work unbearable. As a result, there was a high turnover rate, he said.

"You could just hear echoes of screams coming down the halls, all day long," said Miller, who will testify in favor of Joyce's bills. "The stress levels were incredible because every time someone jumped up from being shocked, everyone would scream as a reaction and in turn they would be shocked. It's dangerous to think of the level of stress caused by that constant fear."

Joyce said he has already gotten reaction from people who have read the Mother Jones article, and he is confident the bills to restrict the practice will pass before the end of this year.

"This Skinner pseudo-science from 50 years ago is not appropriate today," said Joyce. "It is curious that we don't inflict such punishment on serial killers or child molesters."

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.


Shock treatment. There was a time many years ago when I was involved in an abusive relationship. I wasn't allowed to have friends, or leave the house. If someone knocked on the door we had to turn down the TV and pretend we weren't there. If the phone rang he snapped the cord. (easy child was a baby). I had broken bones, nose, foot, ribs. I was not allowed to leave the house. Many other stipulations I had to follow. Over a three year time I was told how awful I was, nobody would ever want me. So many times I was told bad things. If I went with him and he wanted to stop for a drink, I was handcuffed to the car and had to wait inside the car. I was truely convinced I was a bad person. Nobody would ever want to be with me. My Mother finally intervened. I was admitted to the hospital for depression. Ya think?? I was depressed, but I know what caused it. They gave me shock treatment. Worst thing I ever did. They did a series of three. Severe headaches ever since. Loss of memory. Nerve trouble. And then what? I go back to the same situation.

All I have to say is the shock treatment did nothing accept cause much unneeded pain. From my experience, my opinion, shock treatment is cruel and painful. No benefit what so ever for depression or any other disorder. My opinion. My experience.


Active Member
Not surprisingly, adults with Asperger's Syndrome are outraged and are planning to protest while at a AS conference in Boston later this month. Here's part of an announcement of their protest:

On Thursday, September 28 and Friday, September 29, 2007
*** The Asperger Syndrome Connections 2007 ***

will take place in Boston, Massachusetts, at the John Hancock Center,
organized by the AANE the Asperger's Association of New England. (
Two famous speakers will be there: Tony Attwood and Carol Gray.


call 911
This is Medieval at best. My kid shocks ME enough. I'd never want this done to myself.

I'm aghast. Totally. How about the school that institutionalized this have the same treatment day and night for it's teachers. Do a bad thing - get a zap.

Really incredible. thanks for sharing


Mom? What's a difficult child?
When husband and I were first getting K diagnosis'd and had not yet found this place... we watched a special on one of the news shows about this School.

I started to cry watching it, I could not imagine doing this to K... at the time she was so violent and raging for hours... The parents interviewed were fiercely loyal to the school, but some of the past parents and teachers voiced huge concerns over the practices. Basically felt like they were scaring the kids so bad they would not commit the acts again... fear/pain based treatment???
It is like a shock collar worn around the waist! Some of the teachers said it was being used very inappropiately as well, who is the the person that monitors all of this and decides when and how??? And honestly are they watching 24/7??? That was what the parents who felt it was horrible had to say.

The founder of the school made a very good arguement when listening to him... but after seing the kids and listening to the parents. I just don't don't think I could do that.

It would take a lot more postives...
Thanks Sheila


Active Member
I, too, saw the doctor about this show. And that was a year ago. I can't believe that the school is still open?!!!

What I don't understand is the parent's that are so loyal to the school. I mean, some of them, swear it is the best thing that ever happened to their child! It baffles me - the rationalization and denial these parents are in.

Hound dog

Nana's are Beautiful
Travis used to actually enjoy shocking himself as a toddler and child, to the point where he burnt out sockets til I found covers I could literally screw over the tops of the outlets.

These were no small jolts he received. Doubt it did a thing for his behavior.

Ya know, some real big time research would sure stop the professionals from jumping from one extreme to the other.

Good God, one of the reasons electric shock fell out of favor was that it was an ABUSED treatment.

I just shake my head at this stuff. :smile:


Well-Known Member
Interesting that one mom said it felt like a bee sting, but another guy said it was like being electrocuted. Neither one mentioned the voltage. I can't believe they tried the same thing.

Maybe it can help when drugs do not help. Eye gouging!? I'd be so upset, I'd probably try anything.

on the other hand, the article seems to be mixing apples and oranges, as did your response, Kjs. Your treatment seemed to be one or two strong jolts to get you out of depression. In this school, supposedly, they use a lesser voltage shock treatment as aversion therapy. That generally works on "healthy" people--but even that doesn't always work. Do you all remember the Stanley Milgram experiments?

Clearly, shock aversion won't work on those who don't respond to spanking, yelling, deprivation, or other forms of aversion, because the mental process that deals with-those behaviors isn't working properly. So I'd vote "no."

Drug therapy has been better studied. There's more $ in it. And it's not as scary to watch a loved one get groggy as it is to watch them being shocked.

I used Invisible Fencing on my two Borzoi, years ago. It was excellent. I, of course, tried it on myself, to make sure it was exactly what it claimed to be. It was a 9V battery.
Did it hurt? Yup! Did it work? Yup. But those were dogs. *Mentally healthy* dogs.

by the way, Kjs, didn't anyone interview you b4 you got your shock treatments for depression? Clearly, yours was situation based and that was the wrong treatment for it. (And as you know, it is very common to have continuing headaches forever after shock treatments. So sorry. :() If I'd been your psychiatric, I would have written you a ticket for a lifelong Hawaiian vacation! :grin:


Roll With It
OK. Spanking is illegal in many states, or at least so frwoned on by Children's Services that you can lose custody of your child. But you can send your child to a school where they can shock him all day long??


I think there is a large body of research showing that aversion therapy (wiht milder bad things) does not work in the long run. B F Skinner has been shown to be an ineffective, unefficient way to change behaviors.

My difficult child does not respond to pain. He registers it differently than the rest of us. And if it is used to change behaviors he will challenge you to hurt him severely. This is why we stopped using it at a young age, after a very short trial suggested by a highly recommended therapist.

This school is barbaric and horrific. The operators, teachers, whatever, would be in JAIL if they were parents. How do they get away with this?? I think this is allowed because these are kids nobody really wants. This is just criminal and mind blowing.

I will be emailing my support Occupational Therapist (OT) close the school.