Although the New York State Department of Education bans corporal punishment, each year it uses taxpayer money to send dozens of children with emotional or learning disabilities to schools that use physically and mentally abusive forms of behavior modification. These include electric shocks, seclusion and sleep and food deprivation. Because these punishments are euphemized as "aversive therapy," they have until recently stayed under the department's radar.
But this summer, the New York State Board of Regents decided to regulate the use of such measures. Thankfully, the proposed new rules, which the Regents are scheduled to enact this week, ban aversive treatment after 2009. Unfortunately, however, for this school year and the two that follow, young New Yorkers who receive a "child specific exemption" will still be subject to some of these therapies, and those who get this treatment now could continue to receive it after 2009.
This is a mistake. Aversive therapy for children should be banned immediately here in New York and nationwide. Though corporal punishment can sometimes produce compliance among unruly children, history shows that regulators cannot prevent it from being applied dangerously and inappropriately.
The new regulation was spurred by a $10 million lawsuit filed by a Long Island mother last spring. Her teenage son, who has learning disabilities, had been placed by the state in the Judge Rotenberg Center, a private boarding school for special-education students in Massachusetts that uses electric shocks delivered directly to the skin to change behavior. After leaving the center, the boy was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder, which the lawsuit alleges resulted from his treatment at the school.
In May, New York investigators made an unannounced visit to Rotenberg, where about 150 New Yorkers are enrolled. There, they found that shocks were being administered for such minor infractions as "nagging" or "failing to maintain a neat appearance." A state survey discovered that nine schools used by the state for troubled children also use aversive therapy.
Proponents of these institutions claim that they have no alternative. Testimonials describe Rotenberg as "life-saving." In one instance, family members said it ended the daily self-destructive behavior of a child who once needed brain surgery after deliberately slamming his skull into a sharp object; in others, parents say it stopped head-banging so severe that it had caused near-blindness.
If aversive therapies were limited to extreme cases and backed by strong evidence, they might make sense. But no controlled research supports aversive therapy over positive alternatives like medical and reward-based treatments. What's more, it's far from given that these schools are staffed by highly trained professionals. For instance, Rotenberg was fined late last year by the state of Massachusetts for falsely reporting some staff qualifications.
At a cost of more than $200,000 a year per student, it arguably makes more sense for the state to pay for live-in aides to treat children with gentler and proven alternatives at home.
More to the point, New York faces a tremendous challenge in policing these schools, particularly those that are out of state. Take the Elan School in Poland, Maine, which New York uses as an emergency placement for emotionally and learning-disabled students and which has applied to the state for permission to use aversive therapy.
At Elan, which was founded by a former heroin addict and a psychiatrist in 1970, counseling involves attack therapy "encounter groups" led by students. Three former students who attended Elan in the last five years told me that participants physically discipline one another and are often made to stay up all night.
Elan is probably best known for allegedly having produced a murder confession from Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel in the late 70s after he was subjected to a "therapy" called the ring, in which the victim is given boxing gloves, hemmed in by a circle of students and pounded by fresh opponents until he or she submits.
Elan officials told Maine regulators that it stopped using "the ring" in 2000, but Daniel Grossman, who attended Elan from 1999 to 2002, said he witnessed it after that time. Through its lawyer, Elan said that any charges of abuse from former students are "not accurate." A state investigation by Maine in 2002 cleared the school. New York officials recently conducted an unannounced inspection, but the results are not yet public.
Nonetheless, the fact that any school serving disturbed children would consider electric shocks, beatings, isolation, restraints and food deprivation as appropriate punishments illustrates the inherent danger in allowing aversive tactics. Once permitted, they tend to expand from emergency measures to everyday abuse.
According to the New York Department of Education, the state will be able to educate troubled children by 2009 with nonaversive measures. But since proven alternatives exist, there's no reason to risk another minute — let alone two years — of abuse.
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