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U.S. Department of Justice opens investigation on Judge Rotenberg Center

June 8, 2010

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The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) is probably the best known and most controversial special education school in the world. The JRC describes itself as:

The JUDGE ROTENBERG CENTER (JRC) is a special needs school in Canton, Massachusetts serving ages 3-adult. For 38 years JRC has provided very effective education and treatment to both emotionally disturbed students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems and developmentally delayed students with autistic-like behaviors.

If you haven’t heard of them, you are probably wondering how they could be controversial. From the JRC website:

If positive and educational procedures alone are not effective, then after trying them for an average of 11 months, we approach the parents to suggest supplementing the rewards with a corrective (aversive) consequence for the problem behavior. If the parent approves, and if we obtain an individualized authorization from a Massachusetts Probate Court, we apply an aversive in the form of a 2-second shock to the surface of the skin, usually on the arm or leg, as a consequence each time the problem behavior occurs.

Yes. The JRC uses aversives. Not just any aversives, they use electric shocks. When I first read that it sounded like they get parental and Court approval for each shock. Not so. Children are fitted with backpacks or “fanny packs” which have control units. Children are monitored 24/7. If an aversive is called for, the JRC staff can remotely signal the control unit to apply a shock to the child. Children can be shocked 30 times—or more—in a single day.

A coalition of disability organizations have filed a complaint against the Judge Rotenberg Center with the United States Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice responded with a letter stating they have opened a “routine investigation”.

A letter from Nancy Weiss informing people of the investigation is below. Ms. Weiss is from the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities and the University of Delaware.The Complaint letter, signed by 31 disability organizations, is quoted below that.

Disability advocates have cause for celebration today. In response to the September 30th letter signed by 31 disability organizations, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division has announced that they have initiated an official investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC); see the Department of Justice letter attached.

I’ve been waiting to receive the official notice before announcing this exciting news for the 31 disability organizations that signed the September 30th letter and for all of the disability advocates who have been fighting for over twenty-five years to put an end to the use of electric shock, other painful and aversive procedures, seclusion, unnecessary restraint, and food deprivation as methods of behavior control. Our September 30th letter was sent to seven government agencies and three human rights organizations (see list of letter’s recipients below and the letter and addendum, attached).

The initial response of the Department of Justice was that they didn’t believe that they could take action because they didn’t believe they had jurisdiction over privately operated facilities (like the Judge Rotenberg Center) since CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act ( applies only to state-run (not state-funded or -licensed) institutions. I suggested to them that they consider jurisdiction under the ADA on the basis that people with disabilities are being treated in ways that are neither legal nor would be tolerated if applied to people who do not have disabilities (see my email to them below). Their letter states that they are pursuing this investigation under Title III of the ADA which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

None of the other government or human rights organizations that were recipients of the letter have so far been able or willing to take action – Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights had other priorities; Amnesty International is seeking guidance through their international headquarters in London but, as has been our experience in the past, they have shown little interest. The U.S. Department of Education referred us to their efforts with regard to seclusion and restraint, which, while related and important issues, do not address the concerns about electric shock and other aversive procedures described in the letter. The Office on Disability suggested that advocates should “think about finding a way to connect this issue to regulatory compliance,” though clearly we have pursued this approach with limited success for over twenty-five years.

While it is not possible to say how long the Department of Justice investigation will take (they just chuckled when I asked this) or what the impact of this investigation will be, we know that Department of Justice investigations are customarily thorough and rigorous. I will certainly keep the 31 signing organizations and others who have expressed interest in this effort informed along the way. If you are not sure you are on that list and would like to be kept posted, just send a reply email.

If you have first hand knowledge of JRC/BRI related issues and would like to be interviewed by the Department of Justice investigators, please let me know and I will pass this on to them.

To each of you who has maintained energy for this issue over a long, frustrating and mostly unproductive battle, I am most appreciative of your continued commitment. When you think about how long these abuses have been known and generally ignored, I know you share my sense that we must have fallen down the rabbit hole. We can only keep our fingers crossed that this is the first step in righting a long history of wrongs.

With renewed hope,


This is the complaint letter.

September 30, 2009

We are writing to ask the above Government agencies and human rights organizations to take action to put an end to the use of electric shock, other painful and aversive procedures, seclusion, unnecessary restraint, and food deprivation – all inhumane and unnecessary methods of behavior modification used in some schools and residential facilities for children and adults with disabilities in the United States. This letter is signed by 31 disability organizations concerned with the humane treatment of people with disabilities.

The attached information focuses on the practices of the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. While there are examples of the use of prolonged seclusion and unnecessary restraint in schools and residential facilities across the country, studies prepared by government agencies and investigative reports that have appeared in the media suggest that the Judge Rotenberg Center uses these procedures as well as painful electric shock and food deprivation. According to public sources, residents of the Judge Rotenberg Center receive painful electric shocks for behaviors as innocuous as stopping work for more than ten seconds, getting out of their seats, interrupting others, or whispering1. In the view of the undersigned, the use of painful and dehumanizing behavioral techniques violates all principles of human rights. We are sending this letter to a number of government and human rights organizations. We ask that you show leadership in protecting the rights of all people in the United States by acting to put an end to these inhumane practices wherever they occur.

The type of practices against which we ask you to take action have been documented in numerous government reports and other public documents. One of the best documentations of these practices is the June, 2006 New York State Education Department report2 that noted the following concerns about the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC):

“Students wear the GED device [the device that delivers the electric shock] for the majority of their sleeping and waking hours, and some students are required to wear it during shower/bath time. The GED receivers range in size and are placed in either “fanny” packs or knapsacks. Staff carry the GED transmitters in a plastic box. Students may have multiple GED devices (electrodes) on their bodies. For example, one NYS student’s behavior program states, “C will wear two GED devices. C will wear 3 spread, GED electrodes at all times and take a GED shower for her full self care.” (p.7)

“A combination of mechanical restraint and GED skin shock is also used to administer a consequence to students that attempt to remove the GED from their bodies. In instances where this combined aversive approach is used, the student, over a period of time specified on his or her behavior program, is mechanically restrained on a platform and GED shocks are applied at varying intervals. … An example of this is found on one NYS student’s behavior program; a consequence for pulling a fire alarm is to receive 5 GED [shocks], over a 10-minute period, while being restrained on a four-point board.” (p. 9)

Another example of these inhumane practices was documented by NPR Health Reporter Joseph Shapiro, in his book No Pity. His observations of The Judge Rotenberg Center include the following:

” … one young man got tired of picking out matching shapes on a computer screen. But his teacher demanded that he continue and pinched him on the palm for disobeying. The young man …made a guttural noise of protest and tried to get up. In a second, two staffers had thrown him face down on the floor. This only made him more agitated. Then came a squirt in the face with ammonia water. The man spent a minute on the floor, trying to move and protest, but was restrained by one staffer’s knee in his back and another’s grip on his arm.”

The JRC website describes these practices as “intensive treatment procedures” but almost every national disability organization agrees that the use of painful procedures to change a person’s behavior is unnecessary, inhumane, and should be banned.

With this letter, we ask The House Committee on Education and Labor to take legislative action to end the use of these practices. In our view the practices described in the New York State Education Department report on JRC meet the definition of torture in the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that is, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental; is intentionally inflicted on a person; for such purposes as:
obtaining from him/her or a third person information or a confession;
punishing him/her for an act s/he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed;
intimidating or coercing him/her or a third person;
or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind;

when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

We the undersigned urge you to review the attached information which documents extensive instances of inhumane practices and take legislative and regulatory action to halt the continued abuse of children, adolescents and adults with disabilities. Through numerous pleas and campaigns, advocates have seen little action from federal, state or local regulatory agencies or the criminal justice system. These entities have been aware of the documented abuses for over thirty years. Even though there is broad professional agreement that a wide range of positive interventions are available which are at least as effective in managing dangerous behaviors, and which do not inflict pain on or dehumanize individuals with disabilities, no regulatory agency has been able or willing to act to eliminate these practices.

As a group of advocates concerned with the support of persons with disabilities, we call on these Government agencies and human rights organizations to work with us to expose and condemn these behavioral techniques, take the legislative and other necessary steps to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and bring an end to these practices.

For additional information, to discuss proposed action, or to contact the organizations below, please contact Nancy Weiss by phone: 410-323-6646 or e-mail:


Alaska Youth and Family Network and YouthMOVE

Anchorage, AL

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Washington, DC

Association of University Centers on Disabilities

Silver Spring, MD

The Arc of the U.S.

Silver Spring, MD

Autism National Committee (AutCom)

Forest Knolls, CA

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Washington, DC

Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies, Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY

The Coalition for the Legal Rights of People with Disabilities

Boston, MA

Cobb and Douglas Counties Community Service Boards

Smyrna, GA

Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities

Hartford, CT

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Berkley, CA

Easter Seals

Chicago, IL

Exceptional Parent Magazine

Johnstown, PA

Hope House Foundation

Norfolk, VA

The Learning Community for Person Centered Practices

Annapolis, MD

The Maine Independent Media Center

Waterville, ME

Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education

Hanover, MD

National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors

Washington, DC

National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities

Washington, DC

National Association for the Dually Diagnosed (NADD)

Kingston, NY

National Disability Rights Network

Washington, DC

The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, University of Delaware

Newark, DE

Respect ABILITY Law Center

Royal Oak, Michigan

RHA Howell, Inc.

Raleigh, NC

Self Advocates Becoming Empowered

Kansas City, MO


Washington, DC

United Cerebral Palsy

Washington, DC

Values Into Action

Media, PA

University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, School of Nursing

Newark, NJ

University of San Diego Autism Institute

San Diego, CA

The Voices and Choices of Autism

Lakewood, CO

Here is an addendum letter.

Addendum to Sept ‘09 Letter from Disability Advocates – End Inhumane Practices.doc

If you can stand reading more about JRC, Mother Jones ran a story on JRC in 2007, School of Shock.

The disability advocates say it much better than I ever could. Picking but one sentence: We cannot condone treating persons with disabilities in a manner that would not be tolerated if applied to other segments of the population.

Read more:


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One Comment
  1. For 40 years JRC has provided very effective education and treatment to both emotionally disturbed students and students with autistic-like behaviors. Please visit to learn more about our program.

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