The ban is national, but it is squarely targeted at a single school in Massachusetts that has been using electric shocks to condition students’ behavior for decades.
In a rare and sweeping decision, the Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it was banning the use of electric shock devices to correct self-harming or aggressive behavior.
The practice presents “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury,” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.
The ban is national, but it is targeted at a single school: the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass., which serves students — both children and adults — who have intellectual disabilities or behavioral, emotional or psychiatric problems.
It appears to be the only school in the United States that uses painful electric shocks to discipline students, and the practice has been in place there for decades.
Those students who have been approved by a court to receive the treatment wear a backpack with a battery inside. It has protruding wires that can deliver shocks to the skin when triggered by an employee at the school.
The practice was meant to condition the behavior of students by causing pain when they acted in ways that endangered themselves or others.
“Evidence indicates a number of significant psychological and physical risks are associated with the use of these devices, including worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage,” the F.D.A.’s statement said. “In addition, many people who are exposed to these devices have intellectual or developmental disabilities that make it difficult to communicate their pain.”
The decision was a culmination of more than a decade of legal battles between the school and its critics, who argued that the electric shock devices were administered excessively and caused lasting damage. In one episode in 2002 that was captured on video, Andre McCollins, then an 18-year-old student, did not take off his jacket as instructed and was shocked repeatedly. In the video, he can be heard screaming “Ow” over and over.
His family sued in one of the most high-profile cases ever involving the school. The case was settled under confidential terms in 2012, and the school continued to use shock-aversion devices.
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Some of the students’ relatives have defended the practice — saying that it worked to change students’ behavior when nothing else could — and denounced the F.D.A.’s decision.
“I just feel like I got punched in the gut when they did this,” said Louisa Goldberg, 66, whose son Andrew Goldberg, 39, lives at the center. “I’m just so sad.”
She said that her son had brain damage and epilepsy, and that he showed severe aggression as a teenager. There were violent episodes, trips to the hospital, and psychotropic medications that left him sluggish. His mother said he was placed in physical restraints for hours at a time.
“His life was torture,” she said.
Mr. Goldberg went to live at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center at age 19 and began wearing an electric shock device. Ms. Goldberg said her son would receive two-second shocks as a sporadic part of a broader treatment plan. He has since been weaned off the device and can do things he could not do before, like go to the movies.
“This treatment works, and I will stand by it, and I will fight for it,” Ms. Goldberg said.
In a statement on Thursday, the school said that the F.D.A. had “made a decision based on politics, not facts, to deny this lifesaving, court-approved treatment.”
“J.R.C. has provided countless hours of testimony, volumes of information and made clinicians, other staff and family members of our clients, or clients themselves, available to the F.D.A. over the past several years,” it said. “In fact, after multiple requests for the federal agency to visit the only facility impacted by this rule, the F.D.A. stuck its head in the sand and refused to visit.”
The school administers the electric shocks with a device called a graduated electronic decelerator. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the school said it had 282 clients, 55 of whom — all adults — had been approved by a court to wear the graduated electronic decelerator after all other treatments failed.
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center was founded in 1971, and opponents of electric shock devices have fought against it for decades through legislation, lawsuits, petitions and reports that described the shocks as torture.
In a 2013 report, the United Nations special rapporteur for torture said that the rights of students at the center had been violated under the U.N. convention against torture.
But legal and legislative efforts did not stop the practice in Massachusetts. And in a recent victory for the center, a probate court judge in Bristol County, Mass., decided in 2018 that defendants in a lawsuit against the center had failed to show that the “aversive treatment used at J.R.C. does not conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
The F.D.A. rarely bans devices, and this decision has been in the works since at least 2018. Some proponents of a ban questioned the delay.
“The F.D.A. finally banning these devices is bittersweet, as action should have been taken a long time ago,” said Karen A. Zahka, a lawyer who represented Mr. McCollins, whose shocks were captured on video.
“For decades, adults and children at the Judge Rotenberg Center have been subjected to this inhumane treatment,” she said. “You can see from the video of Andre McCollins that the United Nations was and is right — it’s torture.”
Public records show that in recent years, the center has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying in both New York State (where more than half the center’s students are from) and Massachusetts. It has also spent more than a quarter-million dollars over the past decade on lobbying federal entities, including the F.D.A., the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Michael Flammia, a lawyer representing the school, said it planned to appeal the ban. He said the F.D.A.’s decision to approve the use of the shock devices in 1994 had since been bolstered by research showing how effective they were for patients with severe behavioral problems.
“The F.D.A. isn’t entitled under the law to abandon the science and abandon the scientists and to do something that is politically expedient to them,” Mr. Flammia said.
In its statement on Wednesday, the F.D.A. said it recognized that some students might need a gradual transition period to stop using the shock device.
“The F.D.A. believes that state-of-the-art behavioral treatments, such as positive behavioral support and medications, can enable health care providers to find alternative approaches for curbing self-injurious or aggressive behaviors in their patients,” it added.
The Arc, a disability rights organization based in Washington, D.C., said in a statement on Wednesday that it celebrated the decision “after too long of a wait.”
“The F.D.A.’s decision, years in the making, to ban the use of the electric shock device is a hard-fought victory and a testament to what is possible when disability advocates fight their hardest for change and for the civil rights of people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, the organization’s top executive. “We hope the ban is a significant step in ending the use of all aversive procedures on people with disabilities, who deserve to be supported with dignity.”