Two recent bills renew a long-running battle over the practice of using electric shocks by people with disabilities as a tool for behavior change — and the role of New York taxpayers in funding the only school in the country to do so.
The Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential school for children and adults in Canton, Massachusetts, has sparked controversy for decades over its use of a device that shocks people with disabilities to avoid what the school describes as dangerous or violent behavior.
Despite multiple attempts by lawmakers, parents and disability rights advocates to end the practice, it remains legal, and the school continues to administer electric shocks to about 50 adult residents, according to school officials.
Proposals pending in the New York State Legislature and Congress could quickly change that.
A account New York State Senator Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) would stop the state from sending government money to the school if it continues to use this practice — stopping an annual flow of more than $20 million in New York taxpayers’ money school districts and the state agency for adults with disabilities that Brisport says are a major source of school funding.
About half of the school’s 300 residents are from New York, including 62 students whose tuition is covered by the New York City Department of Education after education officials determined they could not be served at other public or private schools in the state. The DOE spent more than $8 million on those tuition costs last year, according to data from the department.
“This is an inhumane practice that has shut down every other facility in the U.S.,” said Brisport, whose account is named after Andre McCollins, a former Rotenberg student who was hospitalized in 2002 at the age of 18 after he died within several hours. minutes 31 times was shocked while tied to a plank.
At the federal level, legislation passed by the House of Representatives and pending a vote in the Senate would require the Food and Drug Administration to ban the device the Rotenberg Center uses to deliver the shocks.
The FDA banned the device in 2020, but a federal appeals court ruled that the agency did not have the authority to issue the ban itself.
But the practice is also vehemently defended by the families of some Judge Rotenberg residents, who describe it as a life-saving, last resort treatment that prevents their loved ones from seriously injuring themselves or worse.
The school’s parents and administrators argue that the issue should receive full public debate in the Senate, and that banning the device completely would be a harmful breach of personal medical decisions.
“My daughter will die if she takes this from us,” said Long Islander Marcia Shear, whose 29-year-old daughter, Samantha, has been at Judge Rotenberg Center since she was 12.
Samantha, who has autism, intellectual disability and conduct disorder, tried multiple specialty schools and a cocktail of drugs to stop self-harming behavior, including hitting the side of her head so hard that she detached her retina, Shear said.
But nothing made a difference until the electric shocks, Shear says, are delivered by employees at two-second intervals through a device worn in a backpack and attached with wires to patches on students’ skin.
School officials add that anyone who gets the electric shocks — the youngest of whom is 26 — has a judge’s approval, and the school has made changes since the early 2000s, including discontinuing use of the board. to which Andre McCollins was tied.
But some former students who experienced the electric shocks say they were administered in response to more than just violent or dangerous behavior — and that the device caused more damage than it prevented.
“It’s like you can’t really prepare for anything. It was terrifying,” said Jennifer Msumba, 46, who has autism, tics, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was in school between 2002 and 2009, receiving electric shocks for much of that time.
“They give you this huge list of things that are a shocking offense. My hands tense, waving my hands in front of my face. They shock you because you say more than five inappropriate verbal behaviors in an hour.”
Nathan Blenkush, the director of clinical services at Judge Rotenberg Center, says staffers are trained to deliver shocks for behavior the school has identified as “antecedents” that could lead to violent or dangerous behavior.
Blenkush claimed that every person who receives electric shocks gets an average of one zap per week, describing it as a “safe, low-current”.
But Msumba, who likened the electric zaps to bee stings, said the emotional scar from the shocks survived any physical pain.
“I’ve been gone for about 14 years and still have nightmares about that place every night,” said Msumba, who now lives in a Florida residential facility. “I am shocked every night of my life.”
A spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Education said state law prevents a school-age student attending Judge Rotenberg Center from receiving shocks, although 21 New York adults do.
However, the school is still listed as an “approved” private school for children who cannot be accommodated in other public or private schools in the state — allowing families to apply for public funding for education there without court approval, a city spokeswoman for the state said. Department of Education.
New York City’s education department paid more than $8 million last school year to cover tuition for more than 60 students at the Judge Rotenberg Center, according to agency data.
Glenda Crookes, the president and CEO of the Judge Rotenberg Center, said that if Brisport’s bill to cut off New York’s public funding becomes law, it will devastate the school’s finances and harm students who “go nowhere else.” be able to”.
Brisport argued that if the school stops using electric shock, funding will not be jeopardized, arguing that the state has a moral obligation not to support an institution that still uses the practice.
“If we admit it’s the wrong thing to do, why should we fund a school to keep doing it?” he said.
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