The Shocking Truth

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

This is the imprint of the machine.

Greg Miller was a teacher’s assistant at JRC from 2003 to 2006. He was one of the people who administered the shocks. He recalls stories about them frantically, as if he’s on break and still not able to speak freely. At JRC, he wore a modified carpenter’s belt. Dangling from it was a series of buttons, each affixed with a student’s name and photograph.
Miller says the worst part was shocking everyday behaviors. He would later testify about this on Beacon Hill.

One student was shocked for stopping work for more than 20 seconds. A second, a girl with cerebral palsy, was shocked for moaning and reaching out to hold a staffer’s hand. A third was shocked for closing his eyes for more than five seconds. A fourth was shocked for urinating in her pants; Miller says she’d asked for over two hours to go to the bathroom. A fifth was shocked because he yelled when he saw another student about to be shocked.

Miller says this last scenario played out all the time. He remembers a staffer warning him to always announce to the class when he planned to reach for something in his pocket. The one time he didn’t, the four kids he was walking to the bathroom screamed. "All of these behaviors had to be consequated with a GED electric shock," Miller says. "There were no exceptions—a scream was a scream, a grab was a grab, and we had to follow court-approved orders." And if they didn’t: "Staff would get evaluated, and might even lose their jobs."

What pained Miller, made him physically ill, was the anxiety on a student’s face the moment before it happened. One with the initials C.L. gave out a high-pitched "No, no, no" and then tried to keep his mouth closed to avoid subsequent punishment. J.G.’s voice escalated to a squeak while speaking quickly in Spanish. A.T., by contrast, was strangely emotionless during the shock, but shortly thereafter would moan, quietly, to himself.

One day, Miller claims, a student he knew well was shocked for attempting to go to the bathroom without permission, then for refusing a teacher’s order, then for trying to take the GED off his arm. While shocking the boy for the third action, Miller nearly collapsed, one of his legs giving out "just like spaghetti." He resigned after that.

In 2006, the New York State Education Department released a report saying the Judge Rotenberg Center was shocking even students "without a clear history of self-injurious behaviors." Just as in 1979, one told investigators she wanted desperately to leave the school; she thought daily of killing herself. Her worst fear was a future in which she remained at JRC indefinitely.

Evelyn Nicholson, the mother of a JRC student from New York, sued the Judge Rotenberg Center in 2006, claiming it had mistreated her adopted son Antwone while he was on the GED. Antwone Nicholson has since left the school—and is doing much better—but his attorney says he spent the first days after his departure in a psychiatric ward. Antwone still thought cameras followed his movements and he might be shocked for misbehaving.

This is a confidential report about the machine. It’s from the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission, one of the many government agencies that investigate allegations of abuse against schools like the Judge Rotenberg Center. Some of it has been redacted or, where not redacted, the names changed to letters and numbers. "Events of 8/26/07" begins on page 20.

"At approximately 2:00 a.m., a call was placed to the Stoughton residence. According to AL AB1 [the first staffer], he answered the phone as AL AB3 [the second staffer] was taking a short break. [The first staffer] stated that the male caller identified himself as ‘Arthur’ from ‘DVR’"—"DVR" being slang for the control room, where live feeds from every camera at the Judge Rotenberg Center are recorded. In other words, Arthur purported to be from quality control, the people who look at the wall of televisions. In actuality Arthur was a student who’d gone missing from JRC two weeks earlier, according to a different state report.

"[The first staffer] said that the caller told him that there had been behaviors before the overnight shift that needed consequences." That staffer seemed to know something was amiss; you weren’t supposed to give a student a shock for a behavior occurring more than two hours earlier. So the first staffer handed the phone to the second, the most senior staffer working that night. Problem was, he had been at JRC for only two months.

JRC is always looking for applicants. Greg Miller claims that three months after the school brought on his class of 52 trainees, only one person besides him remained employed there. (Israel admits the school has a high turnover, but does not recall this example.) Its psychologists are not immune from the high turnover, either, which may account for why the Massachusetts Division of Licensure found in 2006 that 14 of the school’s 17 psychologists, including then director of psychology Robert von Heyn, lacked proper licenses. Because the state reimburses JRC for the services rendered by its doctors, and because licensed psychologists can command a higher rate, this meant JRC was potentially overcharging the state. That’s what the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office found in 2007: JRC may have overbilled the state by nearly $800,000. It fell to the Department of Mental Retardation to collect the money. But it didn’t. Or hasn’t yet—a spokeswoman for the department says the investigation is ongoing, while a spokesman for the inspector general says no action has been taken in months.

According to the report, the second staffer handed the phone back to the first, as if he wanted nothing to do with the call. Then the first staffer walked to the bedroom of the student in question and "delivered GED consequences to AL V [the student] while he was in bed." It was later found that Arthur had instructed the staff to use the more potent GED IV. And so they did for the rest of the night. "[The student] says that he ‘got three GEDs for nothing’…. [The student] further tells the [second staffer] that he had ‘better talk to ‘em’ because ‘this man’"—meaning the employee doing the shocking—"is ‘doing the wrong thing.’"

But the staffers didn’t stop. Still on the phone with Arthur, the first continued to shock the student. Moments later, the staffer went to find a GED to shock the boy’s stomach, since the battery powering the leg electrode didn’t seem to be working. "[The student] is seen speaking to [the second staffer], saying ‘get on the phone and find out what is going on…they have to call my clinician.’" By this point four other staffers were awake. They questioned Arthur’s motives, but none dared tell Arthur as much. The staffers were later interviewed by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission; one of them said they "needed jobs" and so did nothing more than what they were told.

The student put up a fight, grabbing batteries for a GED. He said, "Y’all can give me some when you get these out of my cold, dead fingers." The confrontation lasted for nearly half an hour before staffers put him, as Arthur demanded, on a four-point restraining board. By now the boy was no longer resisting. He told the staffer holding the phone, "Let them know I’m being compliant."

According to the school’s protocol, employees are to tell a student why he is receiving a shock. The state report refers to this as a "pinpoint." "The first of the rec room GEDs is given, without a pinpoint for the behavior…. [The student] was given a 2nd GED with a pinpoint for physical aggression. [The student] then is heard asking, ‘Let them rotate me.’" Every hour, staffers must rotate the electrodes so they don’t burn the skin. (Though the school denies the GED injures students, Greg Miller says burns happened often enough that JRC staff had a name for a student going off the machine so his skin could heal: a "GED holiday.")

Six more shocks were given, bringing the rec room total to eight, and still Arthur wanted more. "A 9th GED was given, and on the audio of the DVR footage an audible sob is heard, but it does not appear
to be from [the student]." At this point the second staffer left the room. "He left because he thought he would ‘either cry or throw up’ if he stayed."

"18 was given for swearing, 19 was given with the accompanying pinpoint ‘no refusing to follow staff directions.’ [The student] responded to this with ‘yes, sir.’ 20 was given with no pinpoint. 21 again for refusing to follow direction." After 30 shocks in a single day, staffers were to get approval from a psychologist to shock more. A staffer at one point tried to call someone in upper management from the bathroom—you weren’t supposed to use your cell phone on duty, and the bathroom was the only place that didn’t have a camera—but he had no reception.

"The 37th was given for attempting to remove device, as were the 38th and 39th…GEDs 50, 51, 52, and 53 were given for ‘verbal threats to destroy.’" The state investigator watching the tape had soon tallied 58 shocks, and noted that the staffers seemed to have miscounted: They were only at 47. Arthur had told the first staffer that 60 shocks were to be given, "and the [student] is heard saying ‘thirteen left.’" In the end, he got 12 more: 10 for yelling, the last two for no reason. Including the shocks in his bedroom, the machine had punished the student at least 70 times and as many as 77.

Describing the student afterward, the first staffer said, "He was done. There was no more to him." His skin was "very red." The student complained later that night of a racing heart, a dry mouth; he couldn’t breathe, he said; he felt as if he were "about to have a stroke." The report says "no staff took action" to help him. The student remains at JRC but is off the machine.

"If we tried to apply this brutal device to a prisoner in Guantanamo or someone in Abu Ghraib, there would be worldwide outrage," says state Senator Brian A. Joyce, whose district includes the school’s Canton site. "In fact, it’s against the Eighth Amendment in our country, right? Cruel and unusual punishment. But we allow it for these innocent children. It’s just not right."

  • http://illusionofcompetence.blogspot.com Zoe

    Wanting your kids to be tortured isn’t love. Threatening to “blow their brains out” isn’t love either. Why do we call it “abuse” when this happens to non-disabled kids, but “love” in this case? It’s shameful that you would write a story that portrays threatening your child’s life as acceptable behavior.

  • Shain

    I’ve been studying JRC for four years now, and still – don’t ask me how – I manage to be surprised by how they and their supporters think about people with disabilities. This article reads like a list of all the reasons why they should shut down, except that the conclusion its author has reached is that all of what they’ve done is justified by virtue of who they’re doing it to. It takes a special kind of “othering” of people with disabilities to think them so incomprehensible and unreachable that this is an acceptable, let alone the only, way of dealing with them. And to portray it as love, for a parent to essentially threaten their child’s life if they were ever to be free of it…! I don’t see how such a statement could or should ever be viewed in a favorable light.

  • Alex

    Anyone who supports this kind of cruelty towards children has no conscience. The fact that JRC remains open is absolutely appalling — as is the fact that the author of this article apparently thinks a parent saying “I would blow [my son]‘s freakin’ brains out” represents anything resembling “love.”

  • Des

    I worked for JRC when it was located in Rhode Island. It was the most uncomfortable environment to work in and my heart went out to the students there who had to endure Matt Israel’s self important ego. The group homes were decorated richly and both the homes and school made to look happy and functional in front of visitors…but in my opinion, it was no more than one man’s power trip. Employee morale was not good, not sufficiently trained staff (Ie: People educated and trained to work with autistic or otherwise mentally challenged individuals). To me, it was nothing more than Matt Israel playing God. And the “behavior modification”? – Nothing but cruel and seriously disturbing. I saw cattle prods in the electronics department, a bomb threat once, and nothing but a bunch of people who I sincerely believe did not enjoy nor believe in working there or working for what the school REALLY stood for. Matt Israel is a sick man.

  • Lily

    This is one of the most disturbing articles on institutionalization that I have ever read. I’m ashamed to be a part of a society that considers this acceptable behavior. Eerily, the author did not seem to challenge JRC’s methods at all, but instead turned this institution and its founder into a hero. Serious abuse has gone on in this place, and some continues today. Moreover, the way that the institution views the mentally ill is extremely archaic. I encourage you to please, PLEASE do more substantial research in the future on issues concerning mental health in our country and institutionalization when writing an article like this, particularly on the positive effects of drug therapy.