With little fanfare, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration last October imposed new regulations aimed at phasing out one of the nation’s most controversial behavior-modification practices, a technique used only at one Massachusetts school. The new rules prohibit the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton from punishing any newly admitted students with electrical skin-shocks.
Critics of the school hailed the governor’s move, while they braced for a legal challenge: Rotenberg officials have said the new regulations violate a 1987 court order enabling the school to use the skin-shock therapy as long as it was approved by a judge on a student-by-student basis.
Currently, 88 of the school’s 233 special-needs students — about 38 percent — have such court-approved aversive therapy plans.
But nearly seven months have passed with no legal challenge and the Rotenberg center has admitted 28 new students in that time, none of whom are on aversive therapy plans. (The new regulations allow such treatments for students approved for them prior to the new rules.)
This follows a leadership overhaul last year when psychologist Matthew Israel, who founded the school four decades ago, agreed to step down rather than face trial for his alleged role in destroying tapes showing a night in 2007 when two teenagers wrongfully received electrical shocks based on a prank phone call.
When Rotenberg officials were asked last week if they would challenge the new regulations, the school’s spokeswoman, Mariellen Burns of Regan Communications, declined to answer directly. The center’s lawyer, Michael Flammia, and its new executive director, Glenda Crookes, did not respond to phone messages.
Burns issued a statement that said the center’s right to seek court approval for aversive therapy for all students is “clearly set forth” in the 1987 court order, which the state and the school both agreed to at the time. However, she went on to say that all new admissions since last fall have been “effectively treated with the school’s behavioral program without aversives.”
Longtime observers of the emotionally pitched courtroom battles between Rotenberg and the state — featuring some parents arguing that carefully administered skin-shock treatments are more humane than the psychotropic drugs commonly used at other institutions — say it is too early to determine whether the school has been pushed in a dramatic new direction.
They note that significant money is at stake: The school takes in about $52 million a year, tax records show, based on residential placements that cost school districts roughly $200,000 per child.
But some critics of the school are hoping that the school’s decision to avoid aversive therapy for students admitted since last fall is the beginning of a new trend.
“I’d be surprised, but anything’s possible,” said Matthew Engel, an attorney with the Disability Law Center in Northampton.
Meanwhile, Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Democrat from Milton, whose district includes the Rotenberg center, said he is leaving nothing to chance. A longtime opponent of aversive therapy, he has proposed two new laws: one that bans it for everyone and another that codifies the governor’s regulations into state law.
Both passed the Senate last week, but the bills are expected to face resistance in the House, which is scheduled to take up the issue this month.
The House has previously been more sympathetic to Rotenberg parents who say their children’s behaviors have improved with the treatments. However, one of the two bills, by preserving the treatments for students already receiving them, poses a potential legal-political compromise.
To bolster their cause, Joyce — along with some former staffers from Rotenberg who have launched an online petition drive against the school — has drawn attention to a video acquired last month by Fox25 News, showing aversive therapy administered a decade ago to a student. Part of a recently settled lawsuit brought by a parent, it is the first publicly available video showing aversive therapy at the school.
The center’s spokeswoman vigorously condemned both proposed bills. “The senator has no regard for the lives of the students or their families, nor the devastation that would occur without aversives,” Burns said in an e-mail. “Shame on him.”
Disability advocates say if there were to be a legal battle over the new regulations, it would probably begin one of two ways: The school petitions a judge to authorize aversive therapy for a new student, triggering action by the state; or the school simply challenges the new regulations.Continued...