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United States

Human rights body calls on US school to stop giving children electric shocks

  • Judge Rotenberg Centre in Massachusetts inflicts high-powered electric shocks as a form of punishment on vulnerable children and adults
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 9:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 9:14pm

An international body entrusted with upholding human rights across the Americas has called for an immediate ban on the controversial use of electric shocks on severely disabled children in a school outside Boston.

The Judge Rotenberg Centre in Canton, Massachusetts, is believed to be the only school in the world that routinely inflicts high-powered electric shocks as a form of punishment on vulnerable children and adults. About 47 of its students are currently subjected to the “treatment”, which involves them being zapped with electric currents far more powerful than stun guns.

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Disability rights campaigners have tried for decades to stop the practice, which the school’s administrators call “aversive therapy”. So far the institution has managed to fend off all opposition, arguing that electric shocks are an acceptable way of discouraging harmful habits.

Now the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has issued a rare formal notice that calls for an end to the electric shocks.

In a seven-page resolution, the Washington-based panel says the practice poses a “serious impact on the rights” of vulnerable children at the school, who “may be subjected to a form of torture”.

The commission cites the work of former UN monitor on torture, Juan Mendez, who found JRC’s electric shock technique a potential violation of the UN convention against torture and other international laws. It also notes several federal agencies and professional groups have called for a ban on “aversive techniques”they say can cause psychological trauma.

Using electric shocks to torture children has been recognised as unconscionable around the world
Laurie Ahern, DRI

The commission’s intervention was prompted by a petition from a coalition of advocacy groups led by Disability Rights International.

“The idea of using electric shocks to torture children has been recognised as unconscionable around the world – the US government has got to respond to this and put a stop to it,” said DRI’s president Laurie Ahern.

JRC responded to the call for a ban from the IACHR by insisting it was based on inaccurate information: “No one from the JRC or the families of clients whose lives have been saved by the treatment were interviewed and there has been no response to multiple invitations to visit the school.”

The school insisted the electric shock devices presented no serious risk to children.

“The clients are generally free of restraint and ineffective and dangerous psychotropic medications, free of injuries and able to further their education and relationships with their families in ways that were not possible with any other treatments.”

The centre also pointed to the ruling in June of a family court judge who found that the activities of the centre were legal and must be allowed to continue.

In 2010, the school’s founder Matthew Israel, told The Guardian how he was inspired to come up with the idea of aversive therapy having read a utopian novel called Walden Two which imagined a perfect world in which children were trained to act positively and discouraged from acting negatively.

From those beginnings he developed the idea of using electric shocks on troubled children, going on to develop his own special zapping devices known as “GED” machines the students carry in backpacks. Wires run from the boxes to electrodes attached to the skin on the students’ arms, legs or torsos.

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When the children try to carry out behaviour deemed by the school authorities to be harmful to themselves or others, they are given a shock lasting up to two seconds. Staff administer the punishment by remote control.

The school has been at the centre of a number of scandals. In 2007 staff inflicted almost 100 electric shocks to two boys in their care after receiving a phone call purportedly from a senior manager saying they had misbehaved. The call was later discovered to have been a hoax.

In the fallout, Israel was forced to resign as head of the school. He served five years on probation after he was found guilty of destroying evidence.

A civil trial related to that case led to a video released to the public showing Andre McCollins, a student aged 18, being shocked 31 times over seven hours while strapped to a gurney. He can be heard screaming: “That hurts, that hurts.”

As part of the IACHR call for the end to electric shock treatment at JRC, the commission asked the White House to take to make sure the school suspends the practice immediately.

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So far the IACHR has received no response.

In its resolution the IACHR gives the Trump administration 15 days to impose a ban on the practice in line with the commission’s findings.

The US government has full power to order a ban should it choose to. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates all medical and therapeutic devices, could pull the GED electric shock machine by ruling it illegal.

In 2016 the FDA did say it could prohibit the device, but has not.