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Special needs school seeks withdrawal of plan to ban skin shocks

Attorney cites decree signed by a judge in 1987

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / July 9, 2011

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The lawyer for a Canton special needs school that uses skin shock therapy on children says a plan by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to ban the practice for future students would violate a longstanding court order.

The proposed regulations, scheduled for review at public hearings next week, would prohibit the skin shocks and certain other behavior modification procedures from being administered after Sept. 1, but the treatments would be allowed to continue for students who have court-approved plans.

The Judge Rotenberg Center is not mentioned in the proposed rules, but the facility is believed to be the only school of its kind in the nation that uses the shock treatments to control behavior of some students.

Over its nearly 40-year history, the school has been a lightning rod for criticism from those who consider the painful shocks inhumane or barbaric. But many parents insist that no other kind of treatment successfully curbs their severely autistic children from injuring themselves through actions such as intentionally hitting their heads or gouging their eyes.

A 1987 consent decree signed by Superior Court Judge Ernest Rotenberg permits the use of aversive procedures such as skin shocks on specific individuals, said Michael Flammia, an attorney for the Rotenberg Center.

“These proposed regulations would violate the court order and should be withdrawn immediately,’’ said Flammia, who also questioned why the state would allow some students to continue with the treatment while banning it for future students.

“It seems to me to be an unlawful discrimination against people who need this treatment, and there is no rational basis for allowing some people to have it and not others.’’

About 80 students, less than a third of the school’s enrollment, receive the aversive therapy, Flammia said.

A letter was sent to the administration asking that the proposed rules be withdrawn and that hearings next week in Worcester and Boston be canceled, he said.

The Department of Developmental Services, which submitted the proposed regulations, said yesterday that the rules were “part of its commitment to establishing the highest standards in behavior modification procedures for persons with intellectual disabilities.’’

Officials of the department declined to comment further. Paulette Song, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the letter from the school’s lawyer was under review.

The proposed regulations would add skin shocks, not specifically mentioned in the current rules, to a list of the most severe behavior modification techniques that would be banned for future students because they pose the risk of physical or psychological harm.

Other such techniques include spanking, slapping, or placing a student alone in a timeout room for more than 15 minutes.

Less severe tactics that could still be used on students include shorter timeouts, repeated verbal reprimands, the taking away of points or tokens that had been earned, and denial of dessert or other treats.

The proposed regulations would drop language that recognizes the occasional need for “extraordinary’’ behavior modification techniques for individuals who display dangerous or self-destructive behavior.