FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
It's been called the school of shock. The Boston-based Judge Rotenberg Center uses electroshock therapy to modify the behavior of its students. Kids from eight different states attend the center: many are autistic or mentally retarded, others suffer from acute emotional problems or disorders like attention deficit.
Jennifer Gonnerman is a freelance reporter whose piece on the center appears in this month's Mother Jones magazine. And Greg Miller is a former teacher's assistant at the school.
Welcome to you both.
Ms. JENNIFER GONNERMAN (Freelance Reporter): Thank you.
Mr. GREG MILLER (Former Teacher's Assistant, Judge Rotenberg Center): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So Jennifer, Rob Santana is one of the kids you profiled in your piece. He spent three years at the center and why was he there? What happened with him?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Rob Santana went to this facility in 1999 when he was 13. His parents sent him there. He had been referred - his mother had been given the name of the place from a special education committee in Upstate New York. And he was a pretty troubled kid - always pretty aggressive and had been troubled since he was a baby actually when he was born, addicted to drugs, went into foster care and was adopted. His mother sent him there in the hopes that it would improve his behavior.
CHIDEYA: So what exactly has happened there? I know that there have been children who have died in the center's care. Can you tell me about that?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Over the years, that center has been around since the '70s. It's been around for 36 years. And six children who were in the care of the center have died, though none of those have been linked explicitly to the center's use of aversives or of shock.
CHIDEYA: You yourself got shocked. Describe what it felt like.
Ms. GONNERMAN: Sure. The shocks are two seconds long. I had a shock device, sort of, an electrode strapped on to my arm and in my other hand, I had a remote control. The kids wear backpacks with the shock devices and wires run down their pants and up their shirts. And then they have these electrodes locked on or attached to their arms, their legs, their torso. I pressed the button and the staff had told me that it's no more painful than a bee sting. And I have to say, two seconds never felt so long. To me, it felt less like a bee sting than being stung by a horde of wasps.
CHIDEYA: Greg, how did you come to this work?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I am (unintelligible) teacher certified in Massachusetts. And I wanted to try something different so I wanted to enter into the, you know, special ed and so I enrolled there as a teacher. I actually started off as a teacher's assistant and remained as a teacher's assistant. That's how I started.
CHIDEYA: What exactly constitutes a reason to be shocked? And how involved were you in these treatments in addition to the other aspects of educating the kids?
Mr. MILLER: I was working with mostly with the students with autism and I was - gave many electric shocks to students during my time there. The types of things, which I saw a student shocked there for are types of things such as tearing a - corner of a paper cup while they're sitting on the sofa. There's no differentiation between tearing a paper cup or tearing posters off the wall. A tear is a tear. Students, you know, blowing bubbles with their saliva or pulling arms or shirt sleeves, a lot of things that's aggression but still categorized things under aggression or other strange behaviors that aren't so severe and treat them like they are severe.
CHIDEYA: Now, Jennifer, as I understand it, a good number of the high-functioning children there are black and Latino. There are students who are very difficult to teach, who are very antisocial and other ones that are higher functioning. So why do you think that is in terms of the racial demographics?
Ms. GONNERMAN: You know, many of the kids who are considered so-called high functioning are actually from New York. And when I was there, I would ask them, you know, where are you from exactly in New York and they would name neighborhoods often in New York City that were among the poorest in the city, you know, places like south Bronx or northern Harlem. And I don't have a statistics on the racial breakdown or the class backgrounds of the students, but it did seem to me that they were so disproportionately poor. And I don't know if that had so much to do with this treatment facility or if it's more something that reflects on the sort of special education system in New York City that's sending a lot of kids to this place.
CHIDEYA: There is certainly - there's a lot of people who will say electric shock that's barbaric, but we reached out to the Judge Rotenberg Center. They sent us a response posted to the Mother Jones blog by Matthew Israel, director of the center. And he wrote - this is quite a bit of a copy but very important to get their perspective in here.
Other so-called effective treatments for severe behavior disorders that JRC has seen in the histories of newly admitted students include lobotomy, removal of teeth for severe biters, constant seclusion, constant medical restraint, and many others that experts refer to as, quote, "more humane and effective," end quote, alternatives to JRC's aversive procedures. The lack of an effective alternative and the sheer cruelty of drugging a child into a near coma is why parents turn to a non-public special needs school such as the center that is especially equipped to manage and educate the student and has a proven track record of saving students from the ravages of constant heavy sedation.
What do you say in response to that?
Ms. GONNERMAN: You know, the history of the Judge Rotenberg Center -originally, the students who were there - nearly all of them exhibited very, very extreme types of self-abusive, self-injurious behavior, things like banging their heads or tearing their hair out or chewing on their fingers, and that was the original justification for an approach that involved pain or for eventually for the use of these two-second electric shocks.
Today, the school has about 220 or 230 students and, as we mentioned earlier, a little bit more than half are what are called high functioning. These are not students who are severely autistic or mentally retarded. These are students who have things like bipolar - have been diagnosed with bipolar or attention deficit disorder. So the trouble rises when a device like the shock device, which was developed for very extreme cases of self-injurious behavior, then becomes instead a kind of routine disciplinary tool used on all different types of students.
CHIDEYA: Greg, what turned you away? What made you leave? You stayed there for years.
Mr. MILLER: I came to realize - just over time, I kept seeing things I disagreed with, you know, student being attacked in front of 40 other students by a staff with a knife as part of his treatment and shocked while he's in restraints and trying to keep the knife out of his face. And I saw that happen three times a week and I just - every time it happened, I just got sick and I said, hey, somebody's got to be wrong here.
But, you know, I stayed there even after that was taking place because, you know, the psychologists said it was okay. The judges said it was okay. The state, of course, approved it as far as its laws and the parents approved of it, so who was I to question attacking the student, you know, staff attacking the student in front of 40 other students who are also - they were so traumatized by watching it we'd have to shock them, too. Standing up out of their seat, you know, and the reaction - we'd have to shock them for that. And it just - or throwing a tantrum(ph), or screaming just in reaction of watching their classmate get shocked and attacked, you know, with a knife by a staff yelling at him.
So these scenes weighed on me and bothered me. And the last thing that kind of in helping make my final decision to leave was when I had to - a student stood up, raised his hand and asked politely to go to the bathroom, and he's a student with autism and they shocked him and I was part of that.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to have - sorry to interrupt. We're going to have to leave it there. Greg Miller, former employee of the center. Jennifer Gonnerman, the reporter who wrote the article on the center for this month's Mother Jones magazine.
Ms. GONNERMAN: Thanks, Farai.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
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