For years, owners of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. have fought in court to keep a disturbing piece of closed-circuit video away from public eyes. The school for developmentally challenged kids specializes in a kind of behavior modification therapy which involves shocking its students with painful electric pulses.
Now that a judge has allowed the video to be played as evidence in a lawsuit against Rotenberg, the public is getting a glimpse at the controversial treatment which some view as torture and others view as a life-saving last resort for kids who are a danger to themselves.
The video shows a teenager, with his limbs tied to a mat, writhing in pain as educational personnel administer more than 30 electric shocks, each lasting for two seconds.
The recording, shot in 2002, depicts what Rotenberg employees call a "skin shock" therapy session. The subject of the electric pulses was Andre McCollins, who at the time was an 18-year-old with a severe behavioral disorder. His mother is now suing some of the Rotenberg employees who played a role in her son’s treatment.
“There is no way that shocking him would be justified,” said Dr. Marc Whaley, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case against Rotenberg.
NBC New York first reported on the shock treatments in 2006 when another Rotenberg student, Antwone Nicholson of Long Island, withdrew from the school.
Nicholson’s mother filed suit against the center. Although she consented to her son’s unconventional therapy, Evelyn Nicholson argued the extent of the electric shocks and the potential for abuse were never disclosed.
The Nicholsons settled their lawsuit with Rotenberg. Their attorney, Kenneth Mollins, said the treatment of Andre McCollins was similar to the treatment of his client.
“Some of the things that happened to Antwone Nicholson are depicted on this tape," Mollins said. "Antwone was shocked. He was tied down. He was not fed."
Despite the controversial therapy, a number of parents continue to support the Rotenberg Center.
In 2006, the parents of Samantha Shear told NBC New York they were desperate after their daughter couldn’t stop hurting herself by hitting herself in the eyes. The Shear family insists skin shock therapy was a last resort that improved their daughter’s life.
“The thought process is, ‘we need something severe enough to make this kid stop hurting herself,’” said Marcia Shear. “And you know something, it worked.”
After the video was made public, the Judge Rotenberg Center issued a statement defending the treatment, which it calls GED therapy.
The center said its treatment plans are approved by physicians and are given to patients who "predominantly exhibit behaviors that are dangerous to themselves and others and have been resistant to previous treatments."
Parents or guardians are involved in helping develop their children's care plans, the center added.
Dozens of developmentally challenged kids from New York have attended Rotenberg in the last decade. The state no longer allows public education funds to be used for shock therapy programs, but the school has other treatment programs which do not involved electric shocks.
Mollins says he plans to deliver the Rotenberg Center video to the New York Attorney General’s Office in hopes of persuading state prosecutors to file criminal charges against the school.
Last year the founder of the Judge Rotenberg Center, Matthew Israel, retired after being indicted on two charges related to destroying evidence in a state investigation.
Prosecutors alleged Israel destroyed a digital video recording that showed teenagers being given inappropriate skin shock treatments. Israel pleaded not guilty and the case will likely be dropped as part of an agreement that Israel step down.