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  • Korina Zambrano

Shock Therapy's Resilient Presence in Massachusetts

Despite its liberal reliability since 1928, the state of Massachusetts continues to permit the use of shock therapy on disabled students at a local residential facility. Since 1971, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) has provided education and treatment to both emotionally disturbed students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems, as well as those with intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center

Located less than 30 miles from Boston University’s campus, the JRC has received controversial remarks towards the treatments administered on their students. National attention gravitated towards the school after Fox News released footage of a JRC student that was “tortured” with continuous shocks. After the graphic content was aired, the JRC was then scrutinized for causing their disabled students mass amounts of pain. The event caught the attention of the FDA, who later released a review of Electroconvulsive therapy, concluding that the psychological and physical dangers of the practice are inhumane. Despite the FDA’s research that indicates the harmful nature of shock therapy, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is still permitted to use the aversive treatment on its students. A Massachusetts state court recently ruled in favor of the JRC (Judge Rotenberg Educational Center v. Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services), leaving the general population in a state of perplexity. How has Massachusetts not changed the law?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as shock therapy, has a long and contentious past. Shock therapy was first introduced in the United States in the 1940s, as a form of “intervention therapy,” and is one of the only remaining forms of aversive therapy used today. Aversive therapy is designed to make a patient give up an undesirable habit by causing them to associate it with an unpleasant effect. The practice of electroconvulsive therapy is best defined as, “an instrument used to administer an electrical shock or other noxious stimuli to a patient to modify undesirable behavioral characteristics” (Bowsher, Kristen V.). ECT’s original purpose was to fight the symptoms of schizophrenia, Self Injurious Behavior and Aggressive Behavior. These behaviors are often found in persons with autism-spectrum disorders, intellectual impairment, developmental disabilities, and certain genetic disorders. A few Self Injurious Behaviors (SIBs) can be identified as head banging, hand biting, and skin picking. More serious actions include eye gouging, ingesting dangerous objects, and self-induced burning (Bowsher, Kristen V.). It goes without question that these behaviors require serious treatment, but due to lack of research, other methods of treatment have not been proven to be as effective as ECT.

At first glance, shock therapy may appear to be an outdated practice, but its contemporary use is administered through a GED, or a graduated electronic decelerator. The GED outputs an electric shock that is distributed to a patient for two seconds, transmitted through electrodes placed on the skin. The proposal of “shocking” a patient as means of “aversive conditioning” has been deemed as not only inhumane, but torturous. This common sentiment accurately represents the ideals of the Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services, who accused JRC that the use of shock therapy was not compliant with department regulations. In Judge Rotenberg Educational Center v. Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of JRC, permitting the continuation of Electroconvulsive therapy. The settlement agreement states: “Aversive procedures are permitted for use at [JRC]” (Lynch, Justice). Soon after this ruling, the FDA has expressed its contempt towards aversive therapy, as the “ESDs present a substantial and unreasonable risk of illness or injury” (Bowsher, Kristen V.). On various accounts, shock therapy has been described as skin being “lit on fire,” “stabbed,” “squeezed like a boa constrictor,” or, “itching unbearably” (Strand, Jacob J). To combat this unnecessary form of treatment, the FDA proposed a variety of alternative treatment for SIB/Aggressive Behavior, including mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

By straying from the violent approaches of treatment, the FDA’s suggestions are far less likely to elicit any form of post traumatic stress. Unsurprisingly, a variety of JRC students have developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety-inducing conditions after enduring shock-treatment. Shock therapy has an extensive list of side-effects, including physical abrasions on the skin, heart complications, and increased paranoia from fear of punishment (Bowsher, Kristen V.). Previous attendees of the JRC have accused the school of placing up to five electrodes to their bodies, applied under their fingers or to the bottom of their feet as a means of increasing the pain. A few students have made claims that they were shocked for a wide range of unwanted behaviors, with some being as miniscule as not taking off their coats. A report from 2006 by the New York Atate Education Department stated that students were shocked for, “nagging, swearing, and failing to maintain a neat appearance” (Delfin, Jeffrey). Self-Injurious Behavior and Aggressive Behavior are both conditions that are diagnosed as “learned” behaviors, and respond to environmental modifications. Therefore, the concept of treating the aggression through violence not only undermines itself, but proves that the students never can fully recover from the neverending administered trauma.

Protestors outside the JRC

The Judge Rotenberg Education Center describes its facilities to have an unparalleled positive programming. The school states that their students enjoy a wide range of positive social experiences, but in Fox’s recent release of footage from within the school, the tortured student contends otherwise. In the video, the student is screaming in pain as he endures a series of continuous shocks. He was noted to have been shocked 31 times, exclaiming, “that hurts!” This video paved the way for a group titled Mass Adapt, protestors that fight for disability rights. Mass Adapt began protesting in June of 2018, stating that they would not give up the fight until shock therapy was outlawed at the school. Olivia Richard, a member of the group stated, “We’re letting the Judge Rotenberg Center know that we’re still here, we’re still angry about this and we’re not going to accept it lying down” (EndPlay. “Protesters Demand End to Controversial Shock Therapy Used on Children”). The event strongly displayed the informed public’s opinion, yet the issue has not gained footing as a pressing topic amongst many citizens of Massachusetts. The school is privately operated, and tax-payer funded, which means local taxpayers are unknowingly allowing the school to continue to practice shock therapy on its students.

Conclusively, it is imperative that Massachusetts take action against the cruel practices of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. The JRC paints a glossy image over its inhumane practices on those who do not have a voice to advocate for their own rights. Yet, the students who have exclaimed their agony, such as the student in the online video, were blatantly ignored. The FDA has provided a variety of treatments absent of both violence and torture, and they have demonstrated their loyalty in the fight against the shock therapy. The informed are taking action, and their continued voice is working for the rights of the students at JRC.

Works Cited

Bowsher, Kristen V. “Electrical Stimulation Devices (ESDs) for Aversive Conditioning .” FDA , 24 Apr. 2014.

Delfin, Jeffrey. “Massachusetts Allows School to Continue with Electric Shocks.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 July 2018,

EndPlay. “Protesters Demand End to Controversial Shock Therapy Used on Children.” WFXT, 11 June 2018,

“Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.” Home,

Lynch, Justice. “FindLaw's Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Case and Opinions.” Findlaw,

Strand, Jacob J, et al. “It Is Electric! Electroconvulsive Therapy for Refractory Central Pain and Comorbid Psychiatric Disease.” Journal of Palliative Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Feb. 2018,

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