Mass. school prevails despite decades of opposition to its use of shocks for therapy
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Mass. school prevails despite decades of opposition to its use of shocks for therapy

The video is 22 years old, but the sight of 18-year-old Andre McCollins shocked with electricity 31 times and restrained at the Judge Rotenberg Center still resonates.The video surfaced when his mother, Cheryl McCollins, sued the JRC, a case that was eventually settled out of court. She still doesn’t pull her punches.”I think that people have not realized who they are: criminally insane body-snatching savages,” she told 5 Investigates.Andre was sent to the hospital after that day and still brings it up from time to time.”I used to feel so guilty when he said, ‘Why did you send me there?'” she said. “I asked him to please forgive me. And I didn’t know.”For critics of the Judge Rotenberg Center, the video of Andre has come to symbolize all they believe is wrong with the JRC. That includes the United Nations, which has called the shocks torture. However, attempts to halt the practice have failed repeatedly.Legislation has been shot down, and the JRC has prevailed in state and federal courts. It beat back the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it tried to ban the devices that administer the shocks. In March, the FDA said it was trying again to ban the devices.According to the FDA, about 50 people at the JRC currently have treatment plans that include receiving shocks. It’s known as aversive therapy, and the JRC defends it as the only way to stop some clients from hurting themselves or others.”Nobody should be treated like this. This is maltreatment,” said Jean McGuire, a former state health official. McGuire was assistant secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services under then-Gov. Deval Patrick when the administration decided to try and strip the JRC of its ability to use painful shocks for treatment.That attempt, like others that came before and after it, failed.McGuire said the keys to the JRC’s success are that “it found parents who needed them and who support them. It figured out how to use the laws of the state for their own purposes. And hired very good lawyers.”The Judge Rotenberg Center opened in Massachusetts in 1975. Back then, it was known as Behavior Research Institute and by the 1980s the state was already trying to stop the school from shocking its students.The name was changed to the Judge Rotenberg Center in 1987, named after Judge Ernest Rotenberg, the Massachusetts judge who issued a consent decree that year allowing the JRC to continue the practice. The center was founded by Dr. Matthew Israel, who was a student of Harvard University psychologist B.F. Skinner.An older JRC video highlighted what it said were student success stories, showing a girl slapping herself, pulling her hair out and banging her head against a floor.”This is Janine, who slapped herself, pulled out her own hair, and banged her head against objects,” the narrator says. “As soon as JRC began intensive treatment, she became much calmer and happier.”The message that JRC’s aversive therapy is the only thing that can help some people with behaviors that are self-injurious or aggressive one repeated throughout the years. And support from parents has been a key part of the school’s success.Parent Louisa Goldberg testified at the State House last year about her son whose been at the JRC for more than 20 years.”Andrew had very aggressive behavior and injured numerous family members,” she said. “The 2-second shock has broken the cycle of his aggression.”The JRC declined our requests for an interview, but in a statement, tells 5 Investigates: “The parents and guardians of clients at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center will remain vigilant to ensure that this treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed.Cheryl McCollins isn’t swayed.”If anyone tortured or hurt anyone in the magnitude that they do, they would be behind bars,” she said.Also not swayed? The legions of professionals who treat people with disabilities, including those with self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.”We know that our science has evolved over many, many years, and we know better ways to accomplish our goals,” said Dr. Matthew Riley, senior vice president, educational services at the May Institute.Riley says it’s an ever-evolving process to reduce the dangerous or aggressive behaviors, and it’s not easy.”The reason why an individual engages in self-injury is really challenging. I think generally speaking, it’s because they have some type of an unmet need,” he said. “We have to figure out how are we going to keep this individual safe in the environment? And then we need to quickly identify what are the variables that are causing the person to engage in self-injury.”It’s a process that Trina Sturm knows well. She’s the mother of Presley, a 12-year-old girl with autism, and has come to understand the frustration and desperation that comes with raising a child who hurts him or herself.”I don’t want her to hurt herself. Why can’t we get her to tell us what’s wrong? Why can’t I fix it?” she said.A mom of twins, early on, Sturm noticed Presley wasn’t doing the same things as her other daughter. The situation only intensified as Presley got older and went to public school.”Hitting me, hitting her dad, pinching, scratching, flinging herself to the ground,” Sturm said. “I didn’t want her to be so upset that she had to bang her head on concrete. I just wanted to help her.”Then the pandemic hit, and when Presley returned to public school, it became clear that the setting wasn’t the right fit.”As a parent, you just want your kids to be happy and healthy and safe. And I felt like she wasn’t. Her behaviors were getting in the way of everything that we wanted for her,” Sturm said.But things are different now. Presley attends the May Institute, and with their help, the number of times she tries to hurt herself or others has dropped precipitously.”They were crazy wild when they first started. And now the number, it’s like she’s a different person. It’s like she’s a different kid,” Sturm saidWith Sturm’s permission, 5 Investigates observed Presley and her teacher at the May Institute work through some lessons. “Do you want to do a matching-word worksheet? We could do some writing?” her teacher asked.”Matching,” Presley replied, wearing headphones to soften the noise.Presley matched “Day” with “Way,” earning an “Awesome!” from the teacher.The science behind helping people stop hurting themselves or others may evolve, but it’s not a new concept.The Road to Responsibility on the South Shore has been helping adult clients, including those with injurious behavior, since 1988.”I wouldn’t use electric shocks on my dog, let alone people that I care about,” said Dr. Christopher White, president and chief executive officer for Road To Responsibility. “We have served people that used to be served by JRC and we’ve been successful with them. It’s not easy work. It’s really challenging work, but it works.”Michael McClendon is one of their tough clients. His father, Richard McClendon, recalled how he’d bang his head against walls, break furniture and punch holes in walls, all the more frightening because of McClendon’s size and strength.”He was unpredictable. He got violent, so we had to move him to an agency and they’re the only ones that took him,” he said about the Road to Responsibility.”The reality is that he was quite violent,” White said. To figure out how to lessen the behaviors, staff took “a lot of data, do a lot of analysis on, ‘OK, this is what we saw leading up to this behavioral episode. What’s this episode have in common with the other ones?””How can we intervene quicker to redirect him? Part of what Michael needed was more opportunities to engage in work outside. He didn’t like being inside a lot for work. And so that became really frustrating and social situations became overwhelming really rapidly for him. And so we placed him in a situation where there were fewer people that he had to navigate socially,” White said.Cleaning and checking vans was a good outlet because it was outside and involved few people.”He has a checklist and a supportive staff person with him. So it’s something that he enjoys. It gets him out of the building. At the same time, we’re teaching him replacement behaviors, ways in which that he can ask for what he needs in a more effective way,” White said.Michael is also rewarded for good behavior with things like outings with staff to get coffee and bowling.”If you can teach somebody how to get what they want by communicating in a different, more adaptive way, then chances are really good you’re going to change the behavior,” White said. “There’s a reason why there’s only one place in the world using electric shocks because everyone else has recognized that there are better, more humane ways of getting good results.”

The video is 22 years old, but the sight of 18-year-old Andre McCollins shocked with electricity 31 times and restrained at the Judge Rotenberg Center still resonates.

The video surfaced when his mother, Cheryl McCollins, sued the JRC, a case that was eventually settled out of court. She still doesn’t pull her punches.

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“I think that people have not realized who they are: criminally insane body-snatching savages,” she told 5 Investigates.

Andre was sent to the hospital after that day and still brings it up from time to time.

“I used to feel so guilty when he said, ‘Why did you send me there?'” she said. “I asked him to please forgive me. And I didn’t know.”

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Andre McCollins was restrained and shocked for hours at the JRC in 2002. Video of his ordeal helped reinvigorate opposition.

For critics of the Judge Rotenberg Center, the video of Andre has come to symbolize all they believe is wrong with the JRC. That includes the United Nations, which has called the shocks torture. However, attempts to halt the practice have failed repeatedly.

Legislation has been shot down, and the JRC has prevailed in state and federal courts.

It beat back the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it tried to ban the devices that administer the shocks. In March, the FDA said it was trying again to ban the devices.

According to the FDA, about 50 people at the JRC currently have treatment plans that include receiving shocks. It’s known as aversive therapy, and the JRC defends it as the only way to stop some clients from hurting themselves or others.

“Nobody should be treated like this. This is maltreatment,” said Jean McGuire, a former state health official.

McGuire was assistant secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services under then-Gov. Deval Patrick when the administration decided to try and strip the JRC of its ability to use painful shocks for treatment.

That attempt, like others that came before and after it, failed.

McGuire said the keys to the JRC’s success are that “it found parents who needed them and who support them. It figured out how to use the laws of the state for their own purposes. And hired very good lawyers.”

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Jean McGuire has seen first-hand how difficult it can be to try and take on the JRC.


The Judge Rotenberg Center opened in Massachusetts in 1975. Back then, it was known as Behavior Research Institute and by the 1980s the state was already trying to stop the school from shocking its students.

The name was changed to the Judge Rotenberg Center in 1987, named after Judge Ernest Rotenberg, the Massachusetts judge who issued a consent decree that year allowing the JRC to continue the practice.

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton. The name was changed to the Judge Rotenberg Center in 1987, named after Judge Ernest Rotenberg, the Massachusetts judge who issued a consent decree that year allowing the JRC to continue the practice.

The center was founded by Dr. Matthew Israel, who was a student of Harvard University psychologist B.F. Skinner.

An older JRC video highlighted what it said were student success stories, showing a girl slapping herself, pulling her hair out and banging her head against a floor.

“This is Janine, who slapped herself, pulled out her own hair, and banged her head against objects,” the narrator says. “As soon as JRC began intensive treatment, she became much calmer and happier.”

The message that JRC’s aversive therapy is the only thing that can help some people with behaviors that are self-injurious or aggressive one repeated throughout the years. And support from parents has been a key part of the school’s success.

Parent Louisa Goldberg testified at the State House last year about her son whose been at the JRC for more than 20 years.

“Andrew had very aggressive behavior and injured numerous family members,” she said. “The 2-second shock has broken the cycle of his aggression.”

The JRC declined our requests for an interview, but in a statement, tells 5 Investigates: “The parents and guardians of clients at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center will remain vigilant to ensure that this treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed.

Cheryl McCollins isn’t swayed.

“If anyone tortured or hurt anyone in the magnitude that they do, they would be behind bars,” she said.

Cheryl McCollins, Andre's mother, is still fighting to strip the JRC's ability to use painful shocks for treatment. She is seen here at a rally in Albany, New York earlier this month.

Hearst Owned

Cheryl McCollins, Andre’s mother, is still fighting to strip the JRC’s ability to use painful shocks for treatment. She is seen here at a rally in Albany, New York earlier this month.

Also not swayed? The legions of professionals who treat people with disabilities, including those with self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.

“We know that our science has evolved over many, many years, and we know better ways to accomplish our goals,” said Dr. Matthew Riley, senior vice president, educational services at the May Institute.

Riley says it’s an ever-evolving process to reduce the dangerous or aggressive behaviors, and it’s not easy.

“The reason why an individual engages in self-injury is really challenging. I think generally speaking, it’s because they have some type of an unmet need,” he said. “We have to figure out how are we going to keep this individual safe in the environment? And then we need to quickly identify what are the variables that are causing the person to engage in self-injury.”

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Dr. Matthew Riley, senior vice president, educational services at the May Institute, said pain isn’t necessary to help stop people with disabilities from hurting themselves or others.

It’s a process that Trina Sturm knows well. She’s the mother of Presley, a 12-year-old girl with autism, and has come to understand the frustration and desperation that comes with raising a child who hurts him or herself.

“I don’t want her to hurt herself. Why can’t we get her to tell us what’s wrong? Why can’t I fix it?” she said.

A mom of twins, early on, Sturm noticed Presley wasn’t doing the same things as her other daughter. The situation only intensified as Presley got older and went to public school.

“Hitting me, hitting her dad, pinching, scratching, flinging herself to the ground,” Sturm said. “I didn’t want her to be so upset that she had to bang her head on concrete. I just wanted to help her.”

Then the pandemic hit, and when Presley returned to public school, it became clear that the setting wasn’t the right fit.

“As a parent, you just want your kids to be happy and healthy and safe. And I felt like she wasn’t. Her behaviors were getting in the way of everything that we wanted for her,” Sturm said.

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Trina Sturm and her daughter, Presley, at their home.  The number of Presley’s aggressive outbursts dropped dramatically with the help of the May Institute.

But things are different now. Presley attends the May Institute, and with their help, the number of times she tries to hurt herself or others has dropped precipitously.

“They were crazy wild when they first started. And now the number, it’s like she’s a different person. It’s like she’s a different kid,” Sturm said

With Sturm’s permission, 5 Investigates observed Presley and her teacher at the May Institute work through some lessons.

“Do you want to do a matching-word worksheet? We could do some writing?” her teacher asked.

“Matching,” Presley replied, wearing headphones to soften the noise.

Presley matched “Day” with “Way,” earning an “Awesome!” from the teacher.

The science behind helping people stop hurting themselves or others may evolve, but it’s not a new concept.

The Road to Responsibility on the South Shore has been helping adult clients, including those with injurious behavior, since 1988.

“I wouldn’t use electric shocks on my dog, let alone people that I care about,” said Dr. Christopher White, president and chief executive officer for Road To Responsibility. “We have served people that used to be served by JRC and we’ve been successful with them. It’s not easy work. It’s really challenging work, but it works.”

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Dr. Christopher White, president and chief executive officer for Road To Responsibility, said “We have served people that used to be served by JRC and we’ve been successful with them.”

Michael McClendon is one of their tough clients. His father, Richard McClendon, recalled how he’d bang his head against walls, break furniture and punch holes in walls, all the more frightening because of McClendon’s size and strength.

“He was unpredictable. He got violent, so we had to move him to an agency and they’re the only ones that took him,” he said about the Road to Responsibility.

“The reality is that he was quite violent,” White said.

To figure out how to lessen the behaviors, staff took “a lot of data, do a lot of analysis on, ‘OK, this is what we saw leading up to this behavioral episode. What’s this episode have in common with the other ones?”

“How can we intervene quicker to redirect him? Part of what Michael needed was more opportunities to engage in work outside. He didn’t like being inside a lot for work. And so that became really frustrating and social situations became overwhelming really rapidly for him. And so we placed him in a situation where there were fewer people that he had to navigate socially,” White said.

Cleaning and checking vans was a good outlet because it was outside and involved few people.

“He has a checklist and a supportive staff person with him. So it’s something that he enjoys. It gets him out of the building. At the same time, we’re teaching him replacement behaviors, ways in which that he can ask for what he needs in a more effective way,” White said.

Michael is also rewarded for good behavior with things like outings with staff to get coffee and bowling.

the device that delivers painful electric shocks to people with disabilities as part of their treatment at the judge rotenberg center.

Hearst Owned

Michael is rewarded for good behavior with things like outings with staff to get coffee and bowling.

“If you can teach somebody how to get what they want by communicating in a different, more adaptive way, then chances are really good you’re going to change the behavior,” White said. “There’s a reason why there’s only one place in the world using electric shocks because everyone else has recognized that there are better, more humane ways of getting good results.”

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