On December 20th I picked up a story from ABC News about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center being snookered by a prankster who convinced school officials to deliver “77 shocks to one student and 29 to another.”
I found the story shocking on two fronts. First, I was shocked to learn that the punishment involved was an actual shock. I didn’t know that was still going on anywhere.
Second, I was shocked that any responsible treatment facility would punish a student on orders received over the telephone. Any behaviorist worth his salt would admit that a therapy’s effectiveness is wholly dependent upon proper application, including the timing of the consequence - and that misapplication of consequences is counterproductive to the therapy. Throw off the schedules of reinforcement and what have you got?
As JRC admits, “The best-laid behavioral programs in the world are to no avail if they are not carried out as designed by the direct care staff.” I'm not sure how a telephone call from the outside squares with that.
I linked to a related ABC story that called the Judge Rotenberg Center (J.R.C.) “One of the most controversial schools in the country… [that] tries to eliminate the use of psychotropic drugs, and instead uses aversive stimulation -- specifically behavioral skin shock -- to treat children and adults with the most severe cases of autism and emotional and behavioral challenges.”
On Christmas Day I linked to a New York Times story that reported New York Governor Spitzer’s call to remove any New York students from the program. The Times also misreported that amount of shock being used at JRC which “ranges from 15 to 45 milliamperes, or thousandths of an ampere — not 15 to 45 amperes” as the Times reported.
Finally, I linked to a Boston Globe report that Massachusetts officials required JRC to “stop electric shocks for "seemingly minor infractions," such as getting out of a seat without approval or swearing. And it must show greater commitment to phasing out shock treatments, especially for those about to leave the school to enter mainstream society...”
Recently Kentucky School News & Commentary heard from Matthew L. Israel, JRC’s founder, offering KSN&C readers “an accurate summary of what JRC is really about.”
So I followed up a bit.
Dr Matthew L Israel tells us he studied psychology under the late B.F. Skinner (wiki & Skinner Foundation) as an undergraduate, as a graduate student (like Richard Herrnstein who co-authored the controversial book, The Bell Curve which prompted wide-spread backlash in the social science community for its views on race and intelligence), and as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.
Skinner was best known for his “baby tender,” an enclosed crib better known as the “Skinner Box.” This “operant conditioning chamber” was an instrument of his Radical Behaviorist philosophy which has been very influential in the treatment of students with special needs including behavioral pharmacology.
In the 1960’s Matthew L. Israel was looking for an opportunity to apply these principles and techniques in the treatment of a wide variety of behavior disorders. He found it writing “self-instructional materials” and “in two behavioral communes that [he] started in 1966 and 1967” – once curing a 3-year old “some considered to be extremely spoiled.”
After some consulting and establishing a “unit for the treatment for autistic children,” in 1971, he “started the Behavior Research Institute by offering behavioral treatment consultation in the homes of parents of autistic-like (sic) children.” By 1985 the program accommodated 65 students. He sees the school as a last resort for students and uses “the application of rewards and punishments” to change undesired behaviors.
It is Israel’s tolerance for more severe forms of aversive punishments that seems to draw the most criticism.
Israel writes that, in 1985, “a young man died at [the Behavioral Research Institute] while being restrained at one of our residences.” He says, “The cause of death was ultimately determined to be natural causes related to his condition of tardive dyskinesia and not due to the restraint procedure that had been employed.” But that precipitated the ire of numerous state agencies and groups who have attempted to close down JRC over time and there is a long history of litigation, settlement agreements and Receivership.
The Behavioral Research Institute changed its name in 1994 to JRC to honor the memory of the judge “whose courageous decisions and actions helped to preserve our program from extinction at the hands of state licensing officials…”
“Today, JRC serves over 200 students and adults from many states. These individuals live in 37 apartments, town houses and homes which JRC operates in Canton and neighboring communities. All attend JRC's day school at its Canton facility each day. The program is staffed with approximately 900 employees.
Israel’s effort to present an accurate summary of events ignored the circumstances that lead to school officials to delivering 77 shocks to one student and 29 to another on the word of a prankster over the telephone.
Photo from judgerc.org.