He didn't take off his coat in class. To punish him, staff at a U.S. school for mentally handicapped children shocked the autistic boy 31 times, leaving him brain damaged.
"I never signed up for him to be tortured, terrorized, and abused," Cheryl McCollins, the mother of the autistic boy said in court. "I had no idea—no idea—that they tortured the children in the school."
Neither did the public. That's until last month, when a judge unsealed the chilling video, shot in 2002, showing 18-year-old Andre McCollins strapped face down, limbs tied to a table, screaming with pain as staff at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass. administer what Rotenberg employees call a "skin shock" therapy session.
"These devices are much stronger than police stun guns (1-4 milliamps)," says Gregory Miller, former teacher at JRC. "Unlike stun guns, the electrodes most commonly used at school are spaced 3 – 4 inches apart so that the electrical volts passing through the flesh create the maximum amount of pain with those amps and volts."
In McCollins' case, school staff used the powerfully painful electric shock device (45 – 91 milliamps, at 66 volts) on McCollins over the course of seven hours for not taking off his coat in class.
After his "therapy" was over, McCollins was admitted to a nearby children's hospital and diagnosed with acute stress response caused by the shocks. They said that the shocks could have killed the boy.
According to CBS news, McCollins' mother, Cheryl McCollins, sued the institution and three doctors for the harsh treatment of her son ten years ago. The psychologists are Dr. Robert von Heyn, Dr. James Riley, and Dr. Matthew Israel, the founder.
She wanted the world to see the shock therapy treatment that the State Senate has been trying to ban for years.
As she wiped away tears, she told the court that she had “no idea that they tortured children in the school.”
Lawyers for the school said the shocks were administered as “aversive” therapy, describing McCollins as an aggressive student.
“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.
On April 25, news media reported that McCollins and the Center settled out of court.
Former teacher starts petition
When 31-year-old Kevin Cunningham read about the murder of Trayvon Martin, he created a petition to express outrage about the Florida police department’s handling of the case, Global Grind news reported.
One month later, he never thought that the petition he started would garner more than 2 million signatures from around the world and help draw international attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, he said.
Now, Miller hopes to do the same. "As a former Teacher’s Assistant, I regret having participated firsthand at this school," he writes.
On May 5, Miller created a petition for JRC to stop its practice of shocking special needs students. He believes that if thousands of people sign the petition, his former bosses will capitulate in the intense pressure generated by a national spotlight.
The petition reads in part:
Rather than shocking students for only severe behaviors, student behavior plans at JRC dictated that we shock certain students for even the most minor of behavioral issues like closing their eyes for 15 seconds while sitting at the desk, pulling apart a loose piece of thread, tearing an empty used paper cup, or for standing up and raising a hand to ask to go to the bathroom. In some classrooms, very often students who observe their peers being shocked react in fear by standing up out of their seat, yelling or crying, or throwing down their task -- and are then shocked for these reactions.
A non-verbal nearly blind girl with cerebral palsy was shocked as part of her behavioral plan for making a moaning sound and for attempts to hold a staff’s hand (her attempts to communicate and to be loved).
Digital Journal first profiled the Judge Rosenberg Center in 2008 after criminal charges were brought against psychologist Matthew Israel, who founded the center almost 40 years ago in California when it was known then as the Behavior Research Institute (BRI) .
According to Israel, the center’s philosophy is based on the work of renowned behaviorist B.F. Skinner. In the 1950s, Israel was a student of Skinner’s at Harvard University.
By Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons
B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, circa 1950
Many years earlier, Skinner used a box, which became known as a Skinner box, to analyze behavior. The box contained levers that delivered food or an electric shock through the floor grid. Rats placed in a Skinner box rapidly learned to press a lever for food reward and to avoid pressing a lever that delivered the shock.
From experiments like this, Skinner concluded that using punishment from the environment after an undesirable behavior is performed will decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. In other words, punishment weakens behavior. Skinner called this Operant Conditioning.
He also extended this idea to humans and believed that rats and humans learned in the same way.
From Skinner's Box to Judge Rosenberg Center
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is the 21st century Skinner's box. A 2006 New York State Education Department Report writes that the behavioral program model at JRC is based on a Skinnerian (behavioral) approach and like Skinner's box is organized around the elimination of problem behaviors largely through punishment.
As mentioned earlier, Skinner believed that humans and rats came about behavior the same way. JRC uses the same approach. The New York Report noted that the staff does not "differentiate between the treatment of students with psychiatric or developmentally related childhood disorders. Instead childhood disorders are viewed as learned behavior disorders, which can be corrected through behavior modification techniques."
What are some of the unwanted behaviors?
Instead of having students in a box with an electrified floor, according to the Guardian UK, students wear backpacks around the clock with the GED electric generators inside them, and are zapped using remote control devices controlled by staff.
Isreal writes that he created the GED, or Graduated Electronic Decelerator, to target antecedent behaviors in individuals with mental retardation and/or autism. "GED is a skin shock device used as a consequence to decelerate inappropriate behavior." What inappropriate behavior did children display to qualify for the consequence of a shock?
The New York State reportfound students as young as nine years old subjected to sudden, painful, repeated electric shocks for ‘refusing to follow staff directions’, ‘failing to maintain a neat appearance’, “stopping work for more than ten seconds”, “getting out of seat”. “interrupting others”, “nagging”, ‘swearing’, ‘whispering’ and ‘slouching in chair’, and ‘moving conversation away from staff’.
We must speak up for the children who can't
"My son Andre Mc Collins was subjected to this torture at JRC," petition signer Cheryl Mc Collins wrote Friday. "As a parent, I was not prepared for the inhumane manner in which they treated people. I expected logic and some form of reason to be applied to the students in addressing behaviors that were considered inappropriate.
"Parents are not told "corrective measures" particularly a painful shock is appled [sic] without any warning or concern for what triggered the targeted behavior."
"What was dangerous about keeping his coat on?" she asked.
"As the parent of a son with autism," writes signer Allen Erenbaum, "I know that aversives like shocks are not only cruel, they also don't work. Positive behavioral supports have made all the difference for my son and should be the only means allowed. We must speak up for the children who can't."
"These students are among Massachusetts’ most vulnerable citizens and have no voice of their own to describe their pain," Miller writes. "They need YOUR voice!"
If you want to speak up for those who can't, you can sign the petition here.