Canton school defends skin shocks on students

Tom Benner

The head of the only school in the country that uses electric skin shocks to punish misbehaving students told a panel of skeptical lawmakers the practice is more effective than psychotropic drugs or physical restraint.

“If you give a student enough medication, he goes to sleep, or she goes to sleep, and the student kind of sleeps away the day,” said Matthew Israel, founder of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton. “That’s one way of avoiding problem behaviors.”

Israel told members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities on Wednesday that severely disturbed students at the sometime need to be treated with skin shocks or other so-called aversive therapies to discourage dangerous behavior. The committee is considering several bills seeking to ban or restrict skin shock treatments.

Lawmakers grilled Israel about an August incident in which school employees administered dozens of shocks to two emotionally disturbed students on the instructions of a prank caller posing as a supervisor. Israel sought several times to assure lawmakers that newly installed safeguards will prevent a repeat of the incident at the special-needs school.

“We had no anticipation that this could happened,” Israel said. “When it happened, we were shocked, saddened, horrified, embarrassed, humiliated.”

The calls, by a former resident of the group home, between 2 a.m. and 4:45 a.m. on Aug. 26, resulted in the students receiving multiple two-second skin shocks – 77 to one of the students, and 29 to another.

Skin shocks are given at two levels – the lower feeling like a pinch, the higher like a pinch that feels three to four times harder, school officials said. Prompting gasps in a crowded State House hearing room, Israel said the student who received 77 shocks had received the more painful level.

Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, told Israel she could not understand how staff members at a school group home in Stoughton – which was monitored by cameras – would be willing to wake up sleeping students in the middle of the night to punish them with skin shocks.

“They thought the person talking to them was a supervisor, watching them on the camera,” Israel said. “They thought that they would be fired if they didn’t follow directions.”

One lawmaker who said he once volunteered to received a lower-level skin shock accused Israel of downplaying how painful they are.

“You’re being very disingenuous to say it’s not that painful,” said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Framingham. “It was horrendously painful.”

Senate President Therese Murray made a rare appearance before the committee, testifying that skin shock use should be severely restricted.

“To use it as a means of controlling an adolescent’s behavior is barbaric and wrong and criminal,” said Murray, a Plymouth Democrat.

Tom Benner may be reached at

The Patriot Ledger