A Prank Caller Duped School Officials Into Shocking Students as Many as 77 Times
By EMILY FRIEDMAN
Dec. 20, 2007 —
Seven school officials at a Massachusetts special-needs school have been fired after mistakenly administering electric shock therapy treatment to two students, ages 16 and 19, the Associated Press reports.
"This [incident] happened, we reported it and we've taken steps necessary so that this doesn't happen again," said Ernest Corrigan, spokesman for the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, where the shock therapy was mistakenly administered. "This was not a normal day at Judge Rotenberg."
A prankster, believed to be a former student of the Canton, Mass., school, reportedly posed as a member of the administration and phoned in instructions for shock therapy on Aug. 26, according to a report by the Department of Early Education and Care, the organization that licenses the residential program at the school and is conducting the investigation.
Unaware that the phone call was a prank, school officials reportedly woke the two students up and delivered 77 shocks to one student and 29 to another -- informing both that it was punishment for misbehavior earlier in the day.
Both victims were seen by medical professionals after the incident and later cleared, according to the school. Only one of the students has remained at the insitution since. The names of the victims have not been released.
"I think it's fair to say that [giving someone] 77 shocks is unusual," said Corrigan. "It is excessive to what is normal protocol. Giving 22 shocks is also excessive."
A third person was also reportedly shocked, according to Nancy Alterio, the executive director of Massachusetts's Disabled Persons Protection Committee, who said her agency's 24-hour abuse hot line was tipped off to the incident at Rotenberg.
"The allegations that were phoned in said that somebody had called into [the school] and instructed the staff to provide the aversive therapy [or shock therapy] to three separate individuals," said Alterio, who added that her organization is looking into the third, adult victim.
Rotenberg is a school for severely disabled or deeply disturbed children who would otherwise be overlooked by society, according to a statement released by the school. Shock therapy is only used "after obtaining prior parental, medical, psychiatric, human rights, peer review and individual approval from a Massachusetts Probate Court," according to the school's Web site.
Many of the school's approximately 250 students are low-functioning autistic children who have been unsuccessful or expelled from other schools due to bad behavior, according to Rotenberg.
It is the only school in the United States that utilizes electric shock therapy, which is administered through a device called a graduated electronic decelerator, or a GED.
"The skin shock that we're talking about is two seconds and people who have experienced it say it feels like a bee sting," said Rotenberg's Corrigan.
A statement on the school's Web site adds that, "skin-shock has no significant negative side effects."
In addition to electric shock therapy, students participate in reward-based learning, which allows students who behave well to earn points that can be exchanged for video games, jewelry and other toys.
Rotenberg Dispels Controversy, Again
While the school upholds that the shock therapy is harmless and even has parents to vouch for the success of their children's treatment Rotenberg has seen its fair share of controversy.
The state of Massachusetts has tried and failed to close the institution twice before because of its use of the electric shock treatment, according to The Associated Press, and in 2006 New York's Board of Regents said that it would not permit students from its state to receive shock therapy after 2009, except in very rare cases.
Parents of children with special needs are upset over the incident at Rotenberg, but many of them told ABC News that they had heard negative things about the school.
"I think it's barbaric and there are really no words," said Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, who has two special-needs children. "It's inexplicable. There's no reason to [shock] another human being."
Shreffler advised parents to "do their homework" about their children's caretakers.
"Be very watchful," said Shreffler, who added that her children have never been treated at Rotenberg." Special-needs kids a lot of times can't speak for themselves to tell the story."
"There is outrage that this type of treatment continues to exist and is so easily misused," said Richard Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs and father of two young adults with special needs. "I think we know enough now about autism that there other options [for treatment]."
Autism experts also argue against the school's claim that this type of treatment has no negative effect on the children it is used on, and say while no physical harm may result, psychological effects are almost certain.
"In terms of the stress that it creates for the individuals with autism there is simply no way there can't be some very negative long-term side effects," said Barry Pizant, who is an adjunct professor at Brown University's Center for the Study of Human Development. "It interferes with their ability [to] trust people who are with them and these are people who already have trouble understanding people."
Parents who send their children to Rotenberg may not be aware of other treatment options, said Pizant.
"In no way are we saying these are bad parents, but they've probably not received good programming for their kids in the past," Pizant told ABC News. "You can understand why they'd want to do anything for their kids."
"I see [shock therapy] as the last vestige of [an] old practice that was proven ineffective and we should have stopped doing it all together 20 or 30 years ago," said Pizant. "If you look in the mainstream of people working with kids with disabilities these aversives are totally out of the mainstream."
But when ABC News' "Primetime" went inside Rotenberg in February, the team met several families who were pleased with the treatment.
Linda Doherty's autistic son, Marc, is a student at Rotenberg and was being treated with shock therapy for his aggressive behavior.
"My son is not attacking people, so people can work with him without fear of being physically harmed," said Doherty. "He's able to go on field trips and go out into the community. I think that is a success."
School Reacts, Changes Policies After Incident
Since the incident at Rotenberg was reported more than three months ago, representatives from both the school and the Department of Early Education and Care told ABC News that the center has undergone several changes.
"[Rotenberg] implemented certain measures and protocols for the safety of their children as part of their short-term response," said Early Education and Care spokeswoman Cindy Campbell. "They structured their monitoring department to include additional supervision for those working directly with the student and instituted a new [and more secure] telephone system."
Electric shock therapy is still being administered by the school, but it was temporarily suspended from being used in the residential areas, according to Campbell.
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