School founder denies he obstructed justice

Rotenberg founder Matthew Israel was indicted by a grand jury on Friday. Rotenberg founder Matthew Israel was indicted by a grand jury on Friday. (George Rizer for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011

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DEDHAM — The head of a controversial special needs school denied in court yesterday that he obstructed justice four years ago, yet he agreed to leave his post as part of a deal with prosecutors that will probably lead to the case being dropped in five years.

“Not guilty,’’ declared Matthew Israel during his arraignment in Norfolk Superior Court, where nearly three dozen parents who supported him sat in the courtroom, along with his team of lawyers and public relations specialists.

Israel, 77, founder of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, stood stoically as Assistant Attorney General Glenn Cunha recounted how Israel ordered the destruction of some digital video recordings in 2007, which were a key part of an investigation.

Cunha, who was joined in court by state Attorney General Martha Coakley, said Israel had been told by state authorities to preserve the tapes because they showed what happened during a horrifying night at a Rotenberg group home in which two teenagers were given dozens of inappropriate skin-shock treatments based on a prank phone call.

Israel’s center endorses an unorthodox behavioral-control method, in which more than half of the center’s 200 students wear electrodes attached to their skin, and staff members, armed with remote devices, can punish them with shocks for deviant behavior. Students generally have severe behavioral problems, including some with autism and intellectual disabilities.

Even though prosecutors were ultimately able to find a back-up copy of the destroyed tapes, Cunha said, there was enough evidence that the grand jury indicted Israel Friday on two counts related to misleading a witness and destroying evidence. Cunha said his office ultimately decided to offer Israel a pretrial probation agreement, in which Israel had to permanently end his tenure at the center, which he founded 40 years ago, and serve a five-year probationary term. If he complied, prosecutors would drop the case in five years.

In a separate but related matter, the center has also agreed to hire Isaac Borenstein, a former judge who is now in a private legal practice, to conduct a four-month investigation into the practices at the center.

In accepting the deal, Max Stern, Israel’s defense lawyer, emphasized that his client was not admitting any wrongdoing. He went on to say that Israel had initially cooperated with state authorities, even showing them the original recordings, but ordered the destruction only when he thought the investigation was over and the recordings were no longer needed.

“There was never any attempt or desire by Dr. Israel to cover up anything,’’ Stern said before Judge Kenneth Fishman.

It is an ironic twist that the career of Israel would end over a criminal indictment involving digital surveillance recordings. Israel, no stranger to controversy, had taken pride in the 24-hour surveillance cameras as part of his methodology to help control student and staff behavior.

At the school’s central headquarters, there is a small room with banks of televisions with images from scores of digital video cameras installed at classrooms and at group homes. Staff members monitor those cameras day and night, recording colleagues’ compliance with rules and whether students’ misdeeds were missed by nearby staff and worthy of punishment. If so, the employees watching the screens can call a staff member and order two-second electrical shocks.

Yet these surveillance recordings, so critical to Israel’s operation, may have ultimately controlled him. On a night in August 2007, video cameras captured what happened when a prank caller, pretending to work in the central television screening room, said he noticed two teenagers in a Stoughton group home misbehave and ordered electrical shocks to them.

Staff members who received the call woke up the two students. One was given 77 skin-shock treatments over three hours while protesting and being restrained; another was given two dozen shocks. Recordings from that night are at issue in the indictment against Israel.

Outside court after Israel’s arraignment, Stern referred to another reason Israel was not eager to have recordings circulate beyond the Rotenberg center.

“They did not want something like this to get out on the Internet,’’ he said.

Parents who came out in support of Israel confronted Coakley after the arraignment, saying she was depriving the school of a leader who was willing to accept their children, when many rejected them as unmanageable. Critics of the school, however, said they still want to see Massachusetts end a practice they view as barbaric.

State Senator Brian Joyce, a Democrat from Milton who has pushed bills to end what is often called aversive therapy, said, “I’m very upset that the deliberate and painful infliction of electric skin shocks on our most vulnerable children continues in Massachusetts.’’

Patricia Wen can be reached at