In February 2000, Cheryl McCollins sent her son Andre, an 18-year-old autistic student, to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center for help with his behavioral and developmental difficulties. Andre had already tried two other residential schools, including one where another student sexually assaulted him, to overcome his tendency to break things or hit people in rage attacks. Twenty months later, in October 2002, Cheryl received a terrifying call from a center employee, who told her, “Andre had a bad day.” Earlier in the day, a staffer told Andre to take off his jacket. When he said no, another staff member pressed a button to activate the electric-shock machine attached to Andre’s body with taped electrodes. Andre screamed and threw himself under a table. Four adults dragged him out, and strapped him, facedown, into four-point restraints. Over the next seven hours, Andre was shocked 31 times with a device that emits 45.5 milliamps of electricity — a shock more than 15 times as powerful as the stun belts designed to incapacitate violent adult prisoners. Staff members recorded the reason for each shock — all but two entries on his recording sheet list tensing up or screaming. In the surveillance video, Andre can be heard pleading for staff members to stop. At the Rotenberg center, in Canton, Mass., this is called treatment.
The center’s founder, Matthew Israel, invented the shock device in the early 1990s, under a theory of behaviorism drawn from work by B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Israel’s theory was that exposure to painful stimuli — “aversives” — reduces or eliminates undesirable behavior. Known as the graduated electronic decelerator (GED), the device emits a shock stronger than the stun guns used by police. The center’s own staff frequently claims that the GED is mild. In an interview with ABC News, Rotenberg spokesman Ernest Corrigan said, “The skin shock that we’re talking about is two seconds, and people who have experienced it say it feels like a bee sting.” The center (and its defenders) claim that it is a treatment of last resort used for those with the most severely dangerous, self-injurious and aggressive behavior. They claim that it is effective, despite no evidence of long-term efficacy, something even Israel acknowledges. They claim that it is supported by a robust array of research, despite no independent peer-reviewed research in decades. (What looks at first glance like an impressive array of articles on Rotenberg’s Web site is, upon close examination, mostly internal case studies or data analyses, or items written by Israel or people associated with him.)
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