BOSTON — The U.S. Justice Department has begun a review of whether the use of electric shock therapy by a Massachusetts special needs school violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Educational Center uses the treatment, known as aversive therapy, as a way to control aggressive behavior and prevent severely autistic students from injuring themselves or others. The privately operated, residential school administers the shocks in two-second intervals.
In a Feb. 18 letter, the Justice Department refers to the review as a "routine investigation."
Renee Wohlenhaus, deputy chief of the Disability Rights Section, wrote the letter to Nancy Weiss, director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities.
Weiss' organization, based at the University of Delaware, wrote to the Justice Department in September, asking that action be taken to end the practice. The letter was signed by more than 30 other advocacy groups.
Weiss said she hoped the federal scrutiny would ultimately lead to the closing of the 38-year-old school. The school receives public funds for some students and accepts students from several states. In 2007, it had about 230 students.
"If you tell this to the average person on the street, people are horrified and they can't believe this can possibly be legal and going on in this day and age," Weiss said.
Michael Flammia, a Boston-based lawyer who represents the center, said there was nothing at the school that would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. "The pain created by the skin shock devices is far less than the severe injury, in some cases the permanent injury, that the kids are doing to themselves," he said.
Students who attend the school are required to have independent education plans that specify what kind of treatment the student may receive, and those plans must be approved by parents and a medical doctor and submitted to a Probate and Family Court judge, Flammia said.
In their September letter to the Justice Department, critics said students sometimes receive disciplinary shocks for behavior as minor as stopping work, getting out of their seats without permission or interrupting others.
But the school also has strong support from parents who say it has been an effective last resort for their children