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

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

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

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 (http://www.justice.gov/crt/split/cripa.php) 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.”3

The JRC website describes these practices as “intensive treatment procedures”4 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.5

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.”6

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: nweiss@udel.edu


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: http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2010/02/u-s-department-of-justice-opens-investigation-on-judge-rotenberg-cente/#ixzz0gM41p26c


  1. LBRB Sullivan

    As the person who wrote (most of) the piece above, I am both glad that Education News has decided to pick up this story and, quite frankly, angered at the way it has been handled.

    I was not contacted before Education News ran this piece. Had they done so, I would have certainly given permission to run the piece–as it was written. The opening paragraph was added to my piece without permission. That paragraph is how the Judge Rotenberg Center portrays itself, being a direct quote from the home page of the JRC website:

    " 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"

    "JRC has provided very effective education and treatment" frames the piece in a completely different manner than I intended.

    Again, I would gladly give permission for the use of this piece, in its original form.

    For the record, I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities. In my state, aversives are illegal. Under no circumstances would we allow the JRC to operate here.

    I would encourage readers to read the letter and addendum and ask again can we "condone treating persons with disabilities in a manner that would not be tolerated if applied to other segments of the population"?

  2. Mary Cerreto

    It is really unbelievable that this "news" source can add a full first paragraph that changes the whole tenor of the author's piece. I will never again trust EducationNews.org

    The author's last sentence is key — can we "condone treating people with disabilities in a manner that would not be tolerated if applied to other segments of the population?"

  3. DJM Harris

    No child should be subjected to unnecessary or extreme measure of treatment. My question is what about the staff that endure all sorts of behavior from this population. I am speaking from experience. The majority of these children are out of control. Maybe parents should keep these children at home.

  4. FreeSpeaker

    Should I start with the outright plagiarism of the original article? EdNews STOLE the article from a blog, did not attribute to the author, and to twist the knife further, changed the meaning of the article they stole.

    If a student did this in class, they would flunk.

    EdNews gets a big, fat ZERO.

  5. EducationNews.org

    All the links to the author, references and orginal publication included. EducationNews provides articles as an educational service for it's million plus monthly readers.

  6. gloria

    The entire enterprise should be replaced with a "humane society to avoid cruelty to earlings." This is not only cruel but criminal. All the children young and old must be detoxified immediately, several times, under secure environments and they will be happy and in compliance. They are poisoned to begin with with the ingestion of psychotropics and that's the reason they misbehave. There are planty of alternatives to this horrific/sinister psychopath treatment. I wrote them before and they could care less. They definetely like cruelty. Dear God please help these children!

  7. gloria

    For some reason my emails are intercepted and I was surprised my information went through a few hours ago. I'm the mother of young Albert who was criminally/chemically lobotomized by psychiatry. N.Y. Hospital, Metropolitan Hospital in NY and Earth House School in NJ are the culprits. Their treatment left him with "0" IQ, incontinence and severe cognitive impairment, Tardive Diskenisia,Tardive Dementia, among many other side effects like rage and a tremendous psychosis, some have disappeared after at least 15 detoxifications. They had to be given under secured environment and constantly been watched 24/7. He remains with no IQ, this is so pathetic he can not distinguish the difference between a fat pig and an skinny cat, nevertheless he knows by memory all the songs from the radio his only friend for the last 15 years. Albert was very intelligent but when he smoked THC with his friends, this put him in New York Hospital,(he is extremely allergic to Marijuana) where they administered him 1800mg of lithium plus 400mg of torozine an these lethal combination is cement in your brain; at Metropolitan Hospital they treated him with 500 mg if depakene a medicine for epilepsy experimenting with this medicine for behavioral control. This combination of psychotropics left him with 64 IQ in the border line with mental retardation. Albert had been named among the 5% most privilege children in the country because of his high grades. Then 2 years later I placed him at a Holistic school Earth House in NJ where an irresponsible psychiatrist Postel ordered on the phone 15mg of zyprexa, without bothering to check his records and this mortal psychotropic erased completely the remaining of his intelligence. Needless to mention how psychotic and enraged my son became, he almost killed me 3 times. We have detoxified him at least 15 times by now. He is no longer psychotic or enraged for the last 10 years. His IQ is still "0" and has intermitent incontinence. You can imagine the extraordinary sorrow of being in isolation for the last 15 years of his life, because he cannot communicate, he has a salad word for speach. Psychiatry is sinister, corrupt and promising evil. It should be criminalized to stop the suffering of humanity and the draining of Medicaid funds as psychiatric wards get paid $247,000/bed on average, making this the best investment in the country. The detoxifications don't cost more than a $1000 to get them better and totally manageable. Psychiatry is so negative it not only destroyes the victim but the entire family as well. All these children at the Rottenberg Center must be treated with compassion and be rewarded with good treatment, good food and magnificent supplements and you will see how easy it would be to take care of them. If I can be of help, you have my email. As a family we lost a $10M contract and real estate worth $5M, we have nothing for retirement now.Kind regards, mother and guardian

  8. Liz FS

    Staff at the school defend their actions by saying that these are the most severely disabled kids, the most violent behavioral cases and the shocks or other 'aversions' do not last long. They say that without these treatments, these kids would never be able to go outside and sit in the sun or dance with ponies on a rainbow stream. However, if you saw the 60 Minutes piece, read the Tribe article (1) or the MDRI Report (2), you will see that isn't the case. Not only are many of these kids as 'normal' and non-violent as you would see in any public school for kids with disabilities, the 'aversions' go on for hours, sometimes weeks or months. How much time are these kids spending outside when they're shackled in isolation for months at a time, being denied food and human contact beyond torture? One former staff member says: "When you start working there, they show you this video which says the shock is 'like a bee sting' and that it does not really hurt the kids. One kid, you could smell the flesh burning, he had so many shocks. These kids are under constant fear, 24/7. They sleep with them on, eat with them on. It made me sick and I could not sleep. I prayed to God someone would help these kids." More than that, the 'aversions' are not limited to disciplinary responses to bad behavior. According to one link: "Mock and threatened stabbings — to forcibly elicit unacceptable behaviors resulting in electric shock punishments (Labeled as Behavioral Research Lessons or BRLs, by the center) were reported to MDRI as well as state regulatory bodies." In other words, they were deliberately setting these kids off so they could torture them, then study and write up the results to the 'aversions'. One former student said "The worst thing ever was the BRLs. They try and make you do a bad behavior and then they punish you. The first time I had a BRL, two guys came in the room and grabbed me – I had no idea what was going on. They held a knife to my throat and I started to scream and I got shocked. I had BRLs three times a week for stuff I didn't even do. It went on for about six months or more. I was in a constant state of paranoia and fear. I never knew if a door opened if I would get one. It was more stress than I could ever imagine. Horror." This goes way beyond the benign image the people at Rotenberg want you to walk away with. It is not a stretch to compare this to Guantanamo Bay, but these kids committed no crimes. It even seems fair to think back to Nazi Germany's medical experiments on the Jewish people they kept locked in concentration camps. How 'normal' or inclusive a member of society does a person have to be to be afforded the basic human rights described in the Geneva Convention? That's a question you should be asking your representatives in the legislature. I live in California. According to The Scientific American (3), rates of diagnosed cases of autism in California rose 600 to 700 percent between 1990 and 2001. 205 reported cases in 1990 and 3000 in 01. One in every 91 children in California has been diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum. That's ten percent of the population born between 1990 and 2001 and who knows how many more since. Alot of people to be denied basic human rights. These kids live in an often impenetrable world of their own. Many experts believe that there is a certain terror of the world beyond their cocoon. The Rotenberg Center is doing no one any good by teaching the most defenseless people imaginable that they are RIGHT to be afraid of that world. There is no place for an enlightened society on the Rotenberg spectrum. The DOJ is investigating the Center for human rights violations. Please – contact your representatives and demand action. Tell them you want them to stand up and denounce the use of 'aversions' as applied in the Rotenberg Center and ask them to shut it down.

  9. Upset nurse with disabled boys

    TO: DJM Harris and all the others who refuse to stand up for our most innocent victims, our disabled children.
    From your "experience," why don't you tell us a little more about what this "experience" is? Doesn't sound like much. Since I am a very "experienced" mom of 13 year old twin disabled boys (who are very active) and a pediatric registered nurse who….guess what???? WORKS WITH THESE SAME TYPE OF DISABLED CHILDREN…HOW DARE YOU TELL US OUR CHILDREN SHOULDN'T GO TO SCHOOL. YOU ARE AN IGNORANT FOOL who has no compassion for these children who are teased, not only by their peers, but by ADULTS, nor do you have compassion for us parents who suffer not because our children are a little slower and different, bit because people like you will never allow to be accepted, be happy, and because the world will never treat them with kindness. Kindness begets kindness. ALL CHILDREN LEARN FROM WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN TAUGHT. Whatever bad behaviors they have had, without a doubt, been taught by ignorant people and their ignorant children who learn to treat special ed. children with cruelty instead of kindness FROM THEIR OWN PARENTS, TEACHERS, PRINCIPALS, MY GOD…ADULTS..ITS SAD. You talk bad about little kids who can't even defend themselves, who have been found in closets at school, dead, with their mouths duct taped shut. How proud you must feel. These children lash out because they fear. DO YOUR RESEARCH BETTER "EXPERIENCED" person. How many times has my son's SPECIAL ED teacher not known what sensory integration disorder is, or what about pervasive developmental disorder, or oral aversion OR MY GOD… EVEN AUTISM….."Well I have heard of it, but I am not really familiar with it." You have to be educated in how to handle each and every disorder in different ways. YOu HAVE to know what these disorders mean, how they make the children feel. These are our special education teachers and aids, and you all want to blame the kids when in some states teachers do not have to know a THING about their students disabilities. THAT SHOULD BE A CRIME. MY son does NOT like to be grabbed, not when he completely understands if you ask him to go somewhere and willingly does it. He can't help that he is Sensory, so am I. Why is it my sons have NEVER touched me, harmed me, or ANY of my friends or family but the school illegally restrains my son for saying a bad word…ooops sorry MY FAULT, but you can NOT restrain a child unless they are going to harm someone or burn the building down. My son did NOTHING but let a bad word slip. My son had a seriously injured shoulder and he has already suffered from leukemia, softening of his bones, 13 surgeries, seizures, reflux, delayed gastric emptying, comas and on and on and he has come out of all of that with only a few scars and a speech language disorder. He has been through more than most people and he DESERVES to be treated with kindness and respect. He LOVES other children and always wants to play with them, but because you all have taught your children to be cruel, my son gets bullied and teased and still, he loves other kids. Both of my kids do actually. I am proud to say my sons would be the first one to help anyone in need, I taught them right. Even if the school is trying soooo hard to undo my hard work. My God, a bad word slips out (he IS 13) while he was trying to tell the aid something that the aid wasn't understanding or maybe wan't listening to and my son gets frustrated, says a bad word and is ATTACKED by a 250 lb man….did I mention my son is 68 pounds. Now, who wants to tell me…who is the one who belongs permanently in that special ed class for his stupidity and cruelty…my son was the only one that came out injured. Oh and if you want to talk about injuries on the job, try being a nurse in a hospital. If you want to abuse our children and then blame them, please, go dig ditches or work at McDonalds. DO NOT teach our children.

  10. best gift for mom

    what a statement, harry.. every children have they own rights! to live, to be creative, and to be treated like others, because they're humans!

  11. roe

    Come’on grownups! Let’s save those kids!
    A name and an email address can make you a hero to a disabled abused child…
    The infamous Judge Rotenberg Center for disabled kids, even the United Nations has declared this school in MA an institution of torture. Now despite its high financial clout you can join human rights groups the world over in ending the abuse, and preventing more deaths! All you need is a name and email address to sign the online petition and show the UN what Americans think of state sponsored torture!
    Sign the petition here…
    Read more about it here…

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February 23rd, 2010

Jimmy Kilpatrick

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