In a replay of a contentious scene that has unfolded many times over the past 20 years, supporters and opponents of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center's use of shock therapy stood shoulder to shoulder in a State House hearing room yesterday as the Legislature considered sharply curtailing the school's controversial treatment approach.
Past efforts to prohibit all shock treatments have failed, but in an effort to break the logjam this year, some of the school's fiercest critics have offered a less aggressive alternative: Rather than an outright ban, the new bill would allow shocks to stop students from hurting themselves or others, but would prohibit shocks for more "minor" acts such as swearing, shouting, or failing to complete a task.
Critics, who have long condemned the center's shock therapy as cruel and barbaric, now say they have been partially swayed by years of testimony from allies of the special education school, largely parents, who have praised the facility as life-saving for mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed students.
Sponsors of the bill said they hope it would force the Rotenberg school, the only facility in the nation with such pervasive use of skin-shock treatments, to adopt a stricter standard for use of the unorthodox treatment. About 60 percent of the approximately 240 students at the Canton school can receive shock therapy under their treatment plans.
"Today we have an opportunity to act," said Representative John Scibak, a Hadley Democrat who is a cosponsor of the bill. "We cannot allow the status quo to exist."
But in daylong testimony before the joint House and Senate Committee on Chil dren, Families and Persons with Disabilities, more than a dozen parents, relatives, and school officials said the school was an irreplaceable haven for mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed children, many who have previously been heavily sedated or expelled from other programs.
In one of the most powerful defenses of the school, Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Democrat from Boston, said the school has done more for his 31-year-old mentally retarded nephew than any other.
"He is alive today because of the [shock] treatment," Sanchez testified, while his nephew Brandon clung to him.
At the hearing attended by nearly 200 people, Sanchez said the Rotenberg school has a proud tradition of avoiding psychotropic drugs to control students, instead using shock treatments sparingly, as well as a reward system. Eddie Sanchez, Brandon's father, testified that the public has no idea about the nightmare that parents like him go through trying to find a safe educational environment for their severely retarded children.
"If you close the school, you take him home," Eddie Sanchez told the panel. "I can't do it."
Matthew Israel, founder and executive director of the 37-year-old Rotenberg Center, said the bill was hardly the compromise its sponsors contended. He said the legislation would gut the essence of his behavioral-control therapy. He said the bill would stop his staff from being able to administer shocks for outbursts and rebelliousness that can interrupt teaching in the classroom, as well as for behaviors that often precede violence or self-harm.
For instance, he said, students may be given two-second electrical shocks for getting out of their seat without permission because that act, in the past, has led to the student attacking a staff member. Similarly, a girl who has an obsession with pulling her hair out may receive a shock when her hand comes close to her scalp.
Israel, who has weathered two previous attempts by lawmakers to close his school, said, "In order to treat, you have to treat the antecedent."
He also criticized another provision, which would require the center to get the approval of a panel of psychological experts every 30 days for each student who would receive shock treatments. The bill would also require evidence that the treatments were reducing a student's violent behavior and that no alternative was effective.
Israel, however, said it was wrong to think that short-term shock therapy would always reduce violence for the long term. He likened shock treatment to a "prosthetic," such as an artificial limb or a pair of eyeglasses, that may be needed over the long haul. He said students are not shocked frequently - on average, once a week, he said.
Lawmakers, however, asked about the night last August when teenagers were wrongfully shocked dozens of times over a three-hour period at one of the school's group homes in Stoughton. A former student of the group home posed as a supervisor in the central office in Canton, calling the group home and commanding one of the staff members to shock one student 77 times, another 29 times. The caller said he was giving the orders based on instructions from Israel and his assistant director, Glenda Crookes.
Israel, sitting next to Crookes, told lawmakers he was horrified by the incident, describing it as being like 9/11 to him. He said the school has since initiated numerous changes, which include improved supervision at group homes and barring central office supervisors from ordering shock treatments from a remote location.
The case is under criminal investigation. State licensing investigators looking into the incident relied heavily on a videotape, made as part of the center's round-the-clock monitoring of students and staff in the school and 38 groups homes in surrounding communities.
Lawmakers asked Israel whether a copy of the tape was available, but he said it had been destroyed after he allowed some state investigators to view it. In an interview earlier this week, Israel said he routinely keeps videotapes for about 30 days and saw no need to keep the video from the August incident.
The joint House and Senate committee has not scheduled a vote on the bill. Supporters say they hope the bill, sponsored in the Senate by Brian Joyce, a Milton Democrat, will be passed by the committee in time for a full vote by the House and Senate by spring.
Senate President Therese Murray appeared at the hearing and described the measure as "excellent."
As a result of the controversy over shock therapy, some states have stopped sending new referrals to the Rotenberg school.
At yesterday's hearing, Greg Miller, a former Rotenberg staff member, said he quit after three years because he could not bear to see all the shock treatments administered to students, especially for minor infractions, such as stopping their work assignment for 20 seconds or closing their eyes at their desk.
He said some students had so many scabs from the electrical shocks that there was "no other place on the student's body to place electrodes without placing them on top" of more scabs.
"Please stop shocking students for smaller behaviors," he pleaded to the committee.
Patricia Wen can be reached at email@example.com.