June 30, 2010— -- It may look like any leafy New England campus, but inside one Massachusetts school for special needs children, the method of teaching at work is anything but ordinary.
The Boston-area's Judge Rotenberg Center educates and treats enrollees ages 3 to adult, all of whom are struggling with severe emotional, behavior, and psychiatric problems, including autism-like disorders. And for about half of the 250 students here, undesirable behavior means getting hooked up to a special machine and administered an electric shock.
The skin shock treatment, used only after both a court and the student's parents have approved, has drawn criticism for years. But after the release of a recent study by Mental Disability Rights International, Rotenberg has come under the scrutiny of no less than the United Nations, which is calling the school's practices "torture."
"To be frank, I was shocked when I was reading the report," said Manfred Nowak, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture. "What I did, on the 11th of May, was to send an urgent appeal to the U.S. government asking them to investigate."
Click HERE for the Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) appeal to the United Nations on electric shocks and long-term restraint at the Judge Rotenberg Center.
In a response to ABC News, the Judge Rotenberg Center wrote: "It is just as ridiculous to equate JRC's aversive therapy (which is court approved, on a case by case basis) with torture as it is to call a surgeon's knife cutting into flesh an 'assault with a dangerous weapon.' If a two-second shock to the surface of an arm or leg can stop a behaviorally disabled child from blinding himself through eye-gouging, from pulling out all of his own teeth or from starving himself to death, no sensible person would refuse to use such a humane treatment. The alternative is to be drugged into insensibility, restrained, secluded and warehoused in a state mental hospital--in effect, a form of living torture."
Click HERE for the full Judge Rotenberg Center reply to the MDRI report.
In a 2007 interview with ABC, Matthew Israel, the doctor who runs the Rotenberg Center and developed the shock treatment equipment, had his own take on the line between therapy and torture. "The real torture," Israel said, "is what these children are subjected to if they don't have this program. They're drugged up to the gills with drugs that cause them to be so sedated that they essentially sleep all day."
The patients wind up in state institutions or warehoused in jails, Israel said.
For about half of Rotenberg's students, a mix of adults and children, shock treatment is a regular part of life, meant to help teach them to stop hurting themselves or others. Their cases are extreme. Many here cannot speak. And many are real dangers to themselves, such as the child who would bite and bloody himself from his knuckles all the way up his arm, so that it looked as if he had scales, his mother said. Or another student who gouged out his own eye and blinded himself.
The shock treatment "has no detrimental effects whatsoever," Israel said in the 2007 interview with ABC.
The treatment works by hooking the students up to electrodes worn on different parts of the body, which communicate with a small device carried around in a backpack or fanny pack. When the student engages in forbidden behavior, a staff member administers a shock. Some students wear the electrodes as much as 24-hours a day, seven days a week. And sometimes for years.