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Charges settled in prank-call shock therapy case

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press / May 25, 2011

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DEDHAM, Mass.—The founder of a Massachusetts special-needs school agreed to resign Wednesday, settling charges that he interfered with the investigation of shock therapy administered to two teenagers on the orders of a prank caller posing as a supervisor.

Matthew Israel, 77, entered the agreement in Norfolk Superior Court and agreed to cut all ties with the Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Center, which he founded 40 years ago. He had previously announced his retirement effective June 1 but was indicted last week by a special grand jury.

The charges stem from the destruction of surveillance tapes from a night in August 2007 when the prank phone call to Rotenberg workers prompted them to administer shock therapy to two students.

According to a report by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, one student was shocked 77 times and the other 29 times at center's group home in Stoughton. The boys were 16 and 19 years old at the time, and one was treated for first-degree burns.

Israel's attorney, Max Stern, said his client maintained his innocence and was entering the agreement so the center could continue doing its work.

"There was never any attempt or desire by Dr. Israel to cover up anything," Stern said in court.

Under a sentencing agreement that allowed Israel to avoid making a plea, he was placed on five years' "pretrial probation" and avoided possible prison time in exchange for the center's deferring prosecution.

The center must also appoint a monitor to review events and issue a report in October. If terms of probation are violated, the center could face prosecution.

After the agreement was announced, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said state officials were pleased that the agreement resulted in Israel stepping down from his position.

"It was a primary goal," Coakley said. "During this investigation ... (it's) been very difficult to, in many instances, to get the information that we believed we needed."

She disagreed with Stern's comment that Israel did not try to cover up anything and said she believed prosecutors had enough material to convict Israel.

The Rotenberg Center houses children and adults with autism, mental retardation and other behavioral and psychiatric disorders. It is believed to be the only school of its type in the nation that uses shock therapy.

Its practices have drawn the ire of critics who call them barbaric. But parents of some students have called the treatment a successful last resort in preventing their severely autistic children from injuring themselves by hitting their heads or other actions.

Before the agreement was announced, Marie Washington, whose son has been at the center since 1989, defended Israel and said his school helped save her son's life.

"Let us have the program in peace," said Washington, of New York City's Bronx borough.

More than two dozen parents and staffers from the center showed up at court Wednesday to show support for Israel as he settled the charges of accessory after the fact and misleading an investigator or a witness.

Afterward, parents of students at the center confronted Coakley. She defended prosecutors' actions and said state officials were not looking into the school's controversial treatments, just the events in 2007.

In court Wednesday, prosecutors said Israel refused to turn over video to state investigators and wrongly told staff to destroy the tape because the investigation was over.

School spokesman Ernest Corrigan said at the time that school officials worried the images would be leaked to the public and further disrupt the lives of the two students who were wrongly shocked.

The report also concluded that that the treatments constituted severe physical and emotional abuse to one of the teenagers, and the commission referred the case to the Norfolk district attorney's office.

The agreement Wednesday comes after Israel announced this month he was stepping down.

"I am now almost 78 years old, and it is time for me to move over and let others take the reins," Israel wrote in a letter to the center's board of directors, according to a statement on the center's website.

The statement said Israel planned move to California, where he will join his wife, Judy.

Glenda Crookes, the school's longtime assistant executive director, has been named interim executive director, and the board of directors will launch a nation search for a permanent successor to Israel.

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