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School may have to pay back $800,000

Behavior therapy overcharges seen

State agencies and about 20 Massachusetts school districts may be able to recoup about $800,000 paid to a school known for its use of shock therapy to treat children with severe behavioral and mental problems, the state's inspector general said in a letter yesterday.

Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan's determination was made after the Judge Rotenberg Education Center in Canton said in October it would stop referring to staff members as psychologists if they have not been licensed with the state.

School officials said the 13 staff members who claimed to be psychologists had substantial training in the field and immediately changed their titles to "clinician" after the state pointed out the problem.

Sullivan said in the letter to the Department of Mental Retardation that while the title has changed, reimbursements rates have not. He said that during a five-year period the school budgeted and received from the state nearly $2.1 million for the position of "psychologist-doctorate."

"According to psychologists this office has spoken with, reimbursement rates differ significantly between licensed psychologists and unlicensed clinicians with knowledge of and/or a degree in psychology," Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan said his staff estimated the state was overcharged nearly $400,000 on all state contracts since 2002. He suggested the department work with other state agencies to recover the money.

About 20 school districts in the state also may be entitled to reimbursements equal to or greater than $400,000 -- or about $14,000 per enrolled student, he wrote.

A message left after business hours at the school was not immediately returned.

School officials have said repeatedly that the shock therapy is about as painful as a bee sting, just enough of a jolt to prevent the severely disabled students from hurting themselves or other students.

Critics say some children have been burned by the shocks.