Federal, NY state bills seek to end electric shock treatment for people with disabilities
NEW YORK — Two recent pieces of legislation are renewing a long-running fight over the practice of using electric shocks on people with disabilities as a behavior modification tool — and the role of New York taxpayer dollars in funding the only school in the country doing it.
The Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential school for kids and adults in Canton, Massachusetts, has ignited controversy for decades for its use of a device that shocks people with disabilities to prevent what the school describes as dangerous or violent behaviors.
Despite multiple attempts by lawmakers, parents and disability rights advocates to halt the practice it remains legal, and the school continues administering electric shocks to roughly 50 adult residents, according to school officials.
Proposals pending in New York’s state Legislature and Congress could soon change that.
A bill by New York state Sen. Jabari Brisport, D-Brooklyn, would block the state from sending public money to the school if it continues using the practice — stopping an annual flow of more than $20 million in taxpayer dollars from New York school districts and the state’s office for adults with disabilities that make up a major source of the school’s funding, according to Brisport.
Roughly half of the school’s 300 residents are from New York, including 62 students whose tuitions are covered by the New York City Education Department after education officials determined they couldn’t be served in other public or private schools in the state. The DOE spent more than $8 million last year on those tuition costs, according to department data.
“This is an inhumane practice that every other facility in the U.S. has stopped,” said Brisport, whose bill is named after Andre McCollins, a former Rotenberg student who was hospitalized in 2002 at age 18 after being shocked 31 times in a matter of minutes while strapped to a board.
At the federal level, legislation that’s cleared the House of Representatives and is awaiting a vote in the Senate would require the Food and Drug Administration to ban the device that the Rotenberg Center uses to deliver the shocks.
The FDA banned the device in 2020, but a federal appeals court ruled that the agency didn’t have the authority to enact the ban on its own.
But the practice is also fiercely defended by some Judge Rotenberg residents’ families, who describe it as a lifesaving, last-resort treatment that prevents their loved ones from severely injuring themselves or worse.
Parents and administrators at the school argue that the issue should get a full public debate in the Senate, and that banning the device outright would be a harmful incursion into personal medical decisions.
“My daughter will die if they take this away from us,” said Marcia Shear, of Long Island, whose 29-year-old daughter, Samantha, has been at the Judge Rotenberg Center since she was 12.
Samantha, who has autism, an intellectual disability, and a behavioral disability, tried multiple specialized schools and a cocktail of medications to stop self-harming behaviors including slapping the side of her head so hard that she detached her retina, Shear said.
But nothing made a difference until the electric shocks, which are administered by staff members in two-second intervals through a device worn in a backpack attached by wires to patches on students’ skin, according to Shear.
School officials add that everyone receiving the electric shocks — the youngest of whom is 26 — has the approval of a judge, and that the school has made changes since the early 2000s, including halting use of the board Andre McCollins was strapped to.
But some former students who have experienced the electric shocks say they were administered in response to more than just violent or dangerous behaviors — and that the device caused more harm than it prevented.
“It’s like nothing you can really prepare yourself for. It was terrifying,” said Jennifer Msumba, 46, who has autism, tics and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attended the school between 2002 and 2009, receiving electric shocks for most of that time.
“They give you this huge list of things that’s a shockable offense. Tensing my hands, waving my hands in front of my face. They’re shocking you for saying more than five inappropriate verbal behaviors in an hour.”
Nathan Blenkush, the director of clinical services at Judge Rotenberg Center, says staffers are trained to administer shocks for behaviors the school has identified as “antecedents” that may lead to violent or dangerous behaviors.
Blenkush claimed that each person receiving electric shocks gets an average of one zap per week, and described it as a “safe, low-level current.”
But Msumba, who compared the electric zaps to bee stings, said the emotional scar of the shocks has outlasted any physical pain.
“I’ve been gone for, like, 14 years and still have nightmares every night about that place,” said Msumba, who now lives at a residential facility in Florida. “I’m being shocked every night of my life.”
A New York state Education Department spokeswoman said state law prevents any school-age student attending the Judge Rotenberg Center from receiving shocks, though 21 adults from New York do.
The school, however, is still listed as an “approved” private school for kids who can’t be accommodated in other public or private schools in the state — allowing families to request public funding for tuition there without court approval, according to a city Education Department spokeswoman.
New York City’s Education Department paid more than $8 million to cover tuition for more than 60 students at the Judge Rotenberg Center last school year, according to agency data.
Glenda Crookes, the president and CEO of the Judge Rotenberg Center, said if Brisport’s bill to cut off New York’s public funding becomes law, it will devastate the school’s finances and harm students who “have nowhere else to go.”
Brisport argued that if the school halts the use of electric shocks, its funding won’t be in jeopardy, and contended the state has a moral obligation not to support an institution that still uses the practice.
“If we admit it’s wrong to do, why would we fund a school to keep doing it?” he said.