Q&A: Lawyer speaks on aversive shock therapy

Lawyer speaks about the use of a controversial therapy for students with severe behavioural problems.

GED device
GED devices deliver an electric shock lasting 2 seconds to students with severe behavioural problems [Contributed]

A school in the US is facing criticism for using a form of shock therapy to discipline special needs students. The Judge Rotenberg Education Centre (JRC), the school in question, defends their practices, which are legal in the US. The shocks are delivered with a GED device and they last about two seconds at a time. 

Al Jazeera’s Cath Turner interviewed Michael Flammia, the JRC’s lawyer, about the practice of skin shock therapy on July 11, 2012:

Cath Turner: What is the philosophy behind using the GED device on students here?

Michael Flammia: The philosophy is what we call behavioural psychology. It is trying to treat dangerous behaviour disorders and actually, if you think of behavioural psychology it goes beyond just dangerous behaviours. It could be any behaviour. Parents do it every day – trying to get your children to study, to eat their vegetables. It’s an effort to try to modify behaviour in a way that’s positive and educational.

The typical student that arrives at JRC has come from a psychiatric hospital, or come from another programme that’s expelling them because their behaviours are so dangerous that they can’t keep them safe. They’re attacking staff and they’ve got them on so many drugs they’re almost comatose and they can’t handle them. So JRC is the place of last resort. It’s the school where all the programmes send their kids when they can’t handle them. 

One of the first thing that JRC does is studies the person. They take what’s called the base line, they observe their behaviours and we introduce them to the rewards that are here and they introduce them to the educational opportunities that are here. And when there is a behaviour that’s a dangerous behaviour or a difficult behaviour, they get rewards for not engaging in that behaviour and they are what we call decelerating consequences for behaviour.

For some of these students, those procedures that I just described are not enough. If that’s the case, there’s a review by a doctor, by a human rights committee, by peer review committee, the parents have to consent to it and then a petition has to be filed with the probate court and the school has to ask permission of a judge to use the treatment

CT: On average, how often would a student be given skin shock therapy?

MF: What typically happens is in the first couple of weeks, they might get 10 in a week, maybe 12 in a week. But then after the first couple of weeks, it literally almost goes down to zero. And the average here is the kids that are on this GED device, about one to two a week.

CT: Have you had it yourself?

MF: Oh, yeah. Sure. It hurts. It’s like a hard pinch. For me, if I had a serious disorder, some kind of psychological behaviour disorder, and I had the choice of being on medication or get this skin shock device once a week, twice a week, even five times a week, I would take the skin shock any time. Because when they’re on the drugs, they have no life. They can barely stay awake, they’re certainly not being educated, they’re sitting in a psychiatric hospital room not doing anything. 

CT: Former students that we’ve spoken to say they received a shock for minor behaviour: saying no to a staff member or swearing. Has that ever happened? 

MF: No, no.

CT: For whispering?

MF: No. The only behaviours it’s used for are behaviours that are dangerous. This is carefully designed treatment approved by a court, where the behaviours are very intricately studied and the focus is on the major behaviours, the destruction.

CT: What about Andre McCollins?

MF: With the case of Andre McCollins, he started off that day by attacking a staff person on the bus and they treated that behaviour. And then he was having other behaviours in the classroom. It wasn’t simply saying no to taking off my coat.

The end result of the treatment on that day is not something that was acceptable to JRC, it’s not the way the treatment normally goes. It was a difficult day and I know the people in that room and I watched the tape. They did everything they could, the doctors, the nurses, the treatment team. But certainly that day is not how the treatment works, it was a difficult day and frankly, it’s a day that would be dealt with differently now at JRC today.

CT: If this treatment is so successful, why isn’t anyone else doing it?

MF: It is considered so politically incorrect, so controversial, it completely discourages anybody else from doing it. I know that a lot of would sleep better at night knowing that nobody’s getting aversives, but those aren’t the people that we worry about. We’re about the kids that are here that need the aversives when nothing else will work. This treatment has saved these kids’ lives. That’s what we focus on. We don’t focus on the people that want to sound politically correct and say, “Well, there’s a better way”.

CT: Does that include the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture?

MF: Anybody who says this treatment is torture is 100 per cent wrong. It’s no different than saying dental work is torture. Dental work hurts, but you need it in order to preserve your teeth. Surgery can be extremely painful but you need it in order to fix whatever might be ailing you. So to say that a treatment should be banned or is torture because it hurts makes no sense. 

The last thing that anybody wants is having a bunch of legislatures or strangers tell you what medical treatments you should use for your kid. You want people who are focused on your kid, focused on the needs of your kid.

CT: Do you think there are any negative side effects from skin shock therapy?

MF: No, absolutely not. I see terrible permanent side-effects from the other things that are done to these people, but I haven’t seen any with respect to the GED.

CT: Does the Centre feel under siege at all? Are you tired of defending the practices here?

MF: Yeah, absolutely. I have such respect for the courageous people that work here, because they’re not interested in the GED device, they’re not invested in that. It would be better for the school if they didn’t use the GED device. We wouldn’t have the cameras in here, we wouldn’t have the media interest, we wouldn’t have the controversy. The only reason they have it here is for the kids that need it and if it was taken away, they would either die or be put on drugs for the rest of their lives and they’d be comatose for the rest of their lives. It’s not in JRC’s interest to use the GED device. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.