UN Calls Shock Treatment at Mass. School 'Torture'

"The device is simply a device that administers a two-second shock to the surface of the skin that has absolutely no side effects and is extremely effective as a corrective procedure to encourage children not to show violent behavior, not to show self-abusive behavior," Israel said.

The skin shock is not used until a court and the child's parents have approved.

Shock Treatment: 'It Has to Hurt Enough'

The treatment is not painless, however. "And if it didn't hurt it wouldn't be effective," said Israel. "It has to hurt enough so that the student wants to avoid showing that behavior again."

The skin shock is not used until a court and the child's parents have approved.

As a compliment to the punishment, Rotenberg houses a reward room, where students can buy prizes with points earned for good behavior.

"I'm quite confident that the procedures here are all based firmly on the professional literature of behavioral psychology," said Israel, whose theory of reward and punishment is based on work he did studying under the psychologist B.F. Skinner at Harvard.

The price tag per student at Rotenberg is $200,000 a year, and is financed by tax dollars.

Israel and his supporters say the school's system of reward and punishment is both appropriate and effective. When one student began his shock therapy, he repeatedly would hit himself over the head. And he had nearly starved himself to death. But thanks to the therapy, school officials and his parents believe, he has shown major improvements.

Another student, Mark Doherty started biting himself when he was seven or eight. Psychiatric drugs had rendered him zombie-like, often comatose and drooling, according to his mother. And years of other treatments were not effective. Fifty schools rejected him before he started at Rotenberg. The shock treatments he has received have made a difference, say his parents.

Mark, now 24, still lives at the center. But he is able join his family for picnics and at restaurants, a major success. And for the first time after the treatment started working, the Dohertys say, they can hug their son.

"When he stopped biting himself," said Linda Doherty, "when it went from 40 applications [of the skin shock] one week to 18 applications the next week, in my heart and soul I know it's the right thing for my son."

Mark's father, Richard, added, "It's definitely not the end of the rainbow, but it's the best for our son right now."

But Eric Rosenthal, an advocate for the disabled, disagrees. He says there are a wide range of other treatments available. "A person with a disability is vulnerable," he said, and should be considered distinctly different from an adult who chooses to undergo the treatment.

"A child with a disability, who has to get this day in and day out? The courts have approved it, but did anyone ask the child if they want to be there?" he said.

Rosenthal's recent report on the center's tactics is what spurred a United Nations official into action. For years after ABC first reported on Rotenberg in 2007, State Sen. Brian Joyce tried repeatedly to shut down the school, without success.

"If this same treatment were allowed on terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, there would be worldwide outrage,'' he said.

Now, after Rosenthal released his organization's report, the United Nations has become interested. "I've visited many countries where electric shocks are applied, unfortunately," said Nowak, the U.N. specialist. "Of course this is absolutely prohibited."

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