The Shocking Truth, Part II

It’s tough to write about Matthew Israel. It’s tough to know what to think of him. Yesterday, the state forced Israel to resign from his post as founder and executive director of the Judge Rotenberg Center, the Canton-based school and home facility for mentally and behaviorally challenged children and adults. JRC gives skin shocks to its troublesome residents, two-second bursts of what some have complained is writhing pain, the sort of shock that over the years have led teachers to quit, students to have severe burns, and politicians and assistant district attorneys to investigate the school. This last is part of the reason Israel is stepping down, though that move has more to do with what the government claims is an obstruction of justice, resulting from a heinous 2007 incident in which one student impersonated an authority figure at JRC and demanded that another student be shocked. This second student was, 77 times in one night.

I wrote about JRC and Israel a few years back. Worse things have happened at Israel’s schools over his 40-year tenure than even that night in 2007. Some students have died under Israel’s care. State Senator Bryan Joyce has repeatedly called JRC’s practices barbaric, and many defenders of the least advantaged among us agree. Yesterday’s resignation, they said, was a day of great joy.

But here’s why it’s tough to write about Israel: The man’s right. His practices work. That was the most, well, shocking thing in the six months I spent reporting that story. There are dozens upon scores of parents who love Israel, ones who say that JRC is the best place for their son or daughter. They defended him even yesterday, and railed against Attorney General Martha Coakley for forcing him to resign. At JRC, there are “aversive” techniques, yes, but Israel don’t always resort to them, these parents say. Sometimes their children are able to improve without the use of such cruel treatment.

And what of the cruel treatment, the parents say? It’s actually everywhere else that’s barbaric, everywhere else where their children are medicated without end, and often without benefit, where they pass their days and then lives in a drooling stupor. That is no life at all, these parents argue, and so they seek out JRC — yes, they seek it out. They’re well aware of the worst of its practices. But a two-second skin shock and marked subsequent social improvement is a more moral choice for them than a handful of schools that might accept their children — but only under the premise of heavy and unending medication.

In the end, this is why it’s tough to write about Matthew Israel: He makes you consider the good in barbarity.