Time to end public funding of Judge Rotenberg Center

Canton residential school still relies on harmful 'aversive therapy'

AS MASSACHUSETTS SCHOOLS embark on widely-publicized reopenings, one school will likely continue to remain at the margins of public scrutiny – despite being the focus of a federally-mandated ban, and despite its historical association with several preventable deaths. 

Based in Canton, the Judge Rotenberg Center is a 50-yearold privately-operated, publicly-funded residential and day school enrolling students with intensive needs stemming from autism, psychiatric conditions, and/or intellectual disabilities. It is unique in the nation for continued reliance on a backpack-like contraption (the founder’s grotesque invention) which staff have used to administer electrical shocks in harmful ways as part of “aversive therapy.”  

Students here—as young as five years old—have intensive support needs that have not been addressed in their local communities. A majority of them are Black and Latinx, and from outside the state. These demographics highlight the Judge Rotenberg Center as but one node in the nation’s shadowy education networks, where disabled youth of color are consistently more likely to experience the traumatic or deathly effects of being physically punishedrestrained or in forced seclusion at school. 

In Massachusetts, the educational recovery from COVID-19 should divest public monies from any institution claiming pain as a pedagogical practice. In solidarity with Black-led movements to defund ineffective programs and fund community wellbeing, this next budgetary cycle should defund the Judge Rotenberg Center.  

As educational organizations mobilize to remediate learning deficits from pandemic lockdowns, the Massachusetts Legislature has been debating Gov. Baker’s January budget proposal, which includes a $22.5 million increase in reimbursements to education providers working with “high-needs” special education students across the state. The Judge Rotenberg Center, or JRC, has already received $1.7 million in coronavirus relief funds. Moving forward, the Commonwealth must allocate special education funding with precision in order to support disability-related needs in inclusive public schools and residential health centers. 

JRC has been called a torture site by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, national advocacy organizations, local autism activists, former employees, families, and survivors who have for years demanded its closure and/or reparations. At least six people have died from preventable causes over the years: Silverio Gonzalez, Abigail Gibson, Linda Cornelison, Vincent Milletich, Danny Aswad, and Robert Cooper. 

While it is the only facility in the country employing electric shocks on students (which the FDA is expected to finally ban upon recovery from COVID-19—after years of relentless activism), it also employs other “aversives” such as physical restraints, seclusion, food and sensory deprivation, and other techniques that have evolved from even more egregious past practices. 

Though Massachusetts taxpayer dollars may prove to account for a relatively small share of operating costs, the JRC has a history of potentially overbilling the state to pay for unlicensed psychologists, and then intimidating critics—including state officialswith lawsuits. Yet the JRC remains an approved institution by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

As long as the center continues to defend and promote special education practices that are not supported by research in the field, it is time to end state funding for JRC altogether. The JRC has not contributed to advancing special education expertise in Massachusetts. Special education research has come a long way since the days when B.F. Skinner, a Harvard scientist and the inspiration for the center’s creation, used starving animals in experiments to demonstrate that electrocution modifies behavior.  

The JRC was founded upon this faulty premise, hence its original misnomer: The Behavioral Research Institute. Thankfully, hard-won human subjects research guidelines have by now established that people are not lab rats. We are political subjects with rights. 

Since the 1990s, taxpayers have funded federal research and development of evidence-based practices in special education. Though the field has failed to confront the inequities that plague its processes and outcomes, it has amassed a wealth of options for behavioral health that do not use pain. 

Therefore, the Massachusetts judicial system’s basis for protecting the school yet again in 2018  on the grounds that its techniques have not been proven to not “conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities  is at best flawed. At worst, it is a humiliating assertion to accept as policy in a state that prides itself on its educational institutions and inclusive education.  

As autism activists have previously asserted, the problem is larger than the Judge Rotenberg Center. Ironically, this is a point of agreement with the families who champion JRC’s methods, and suggests a common ground for collaborating towards sustainable solutions. JRC supporters say it fills a void in the system by accepting students that other schools have rejected, and preventing injurious behaviors where others have failed. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives highlighting long existing inequalities in our society, now is the time to fund the integration of special education programs and skilled practitioners in resourced, inclusive communities. Inflicting pain on any child, but especially children with disabilities, does not represent best educational practice. The Massachusetts Legislature should strengthen the public education system’s response to social diversity and learner variability in ways that equitably redistribute learning opportunities, recognize and celebrate cultural diversity, and respect constitutional and human rights. 

Meet the Author
The state budget ought to invest in reducing the educational debt owed historically to Black, brown, working class, and immigrant communities whose experiences enrolling children with disabilities in neighborhood schools can continue to be harrowing—in addition to what has accrued during the pandemic. This budgetary cycle, let Massachusetts divest from electrocution pedagogy. 

Christina Bosch is a PhD candidate in special education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She holds an MEd from Harvard University and an MA from American University, and has taught in a wide variety of settings. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.