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The FDA Banned the Use of Electric Shock on Disabled Kids in Schools. This Court Just Overturned It

The deeply controversial use of electrical stimulation devices has long been fought by disability rights activists.

In March of 2020, the FDA banned the use of ESDs, otherwise known as electrical stimulation devices, which electrically shock kids who are engaging in unwanted behavior. In particular, the FDA banned the use of the devices, which are deeply controversial, from use at the Judge Rotenberg Center, an “institution and school” in Canton, Massachusetts that specifically serves kids who are autistic or who have other developmental or emotional disorders.

As of Tuesday, July 7, the FDA’s order has now been vacated, and the school can use the ESDs should they want. 

On Tuesday, a federal court of appeals ruled that the FDA can’t block the school from utilizing the ESDs. They ruled that the “FDA lacks the statutory authority to ban a medical device for a particular use.” 

The facility claims that, since the introduction of the devices in the 1980s, they have been “a victory for the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center and a group of parents and guardians of its students.” The school serves students with severe disabilities, some of whom have been kicked out of other educational environments for behavioral issues. Per New York Magazine, JRC is a “school of last resort… [that] runs a controversial behavior-modification program, where the repertoire of punishments include painful electric shocks.”

The devices, worn through backpacks, have wires extending from the backpacks, running through clothes, and attaching electrodes to arms and legs.

The school, and a parent’s association, say they are glad that the shock devices can be used as a “treatment of last resort,” and that those who receive the shocks are “at risk of grievous bodily harm, or even death, without it. With the treatment, these residents can continue to participate in enriching experiences.” The United Nations calls this treatment torture.

The ban by the FDA was put in place after a horrifying video showed a resident of the school named Andre McCollins being shocked 31 times over the course of seven hours in 2002. (The video came out years later.) His offense? He did not want to take off his jacket. For that misbehavior, McCollins, who screamed in pain while being shocked 31 times, while physically restrained, spent a month in the hospital in the aftermath.

Another student named Rico Torres, now 24, told the press that he wore electrodes wired to his skin for 24 hours a day for 10 years, from the ages of 8 to 18.  Under his court-approved treatment plan, Torres was allowed to be shocked if he ran away, swore, screamed, didn’t follow directions, or “inappropriately” urinated. 

A 2007 profile of former Rotenberg student/resident Rob Santana in Mother Jones detailed a traumatized former student who attended the school for about three years. That profile also detailed a parent suing the facility in 2007 after her 17-year-old kid was shocked 79 times in 18 months. (The devices are now only approved for people 18 and up.) Some 50 plus attendees of the center are approved for the therapy out of 300 other attendees. 

While the parents of the school are grateful for the ruling, (“We have and will continue to fight to keep our loved ones safe and alive and to retain access to this life-saving treatment of last resort,” a statement said) and argue that the treatment has changed their kids lives, disability lawyers, attorneys, and justice activists are upset. 

An autistic advocacy group fighting to #StopTheShock says that kids with disabilities at the JRC get shocks for things like flapping their hands, standing up without permission, swearing, not taking off their jackets, involuntary noises or movements, or screaming in pain while already being shocked. The JRC is the only center in the U.S. that administers electric shocks to punish disabled people; and the group claims that people with disabilities who receive ESDs have “developed PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders.” 

The FDA says the use of the devices worsens “underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, [PTSD], pain, burns, and tissue damage.” 

A Disability Justice attorney by the name of Shain Neumeier spoke to MassLive and said that the state of Massachusetts should be looking at helping parents place their kids at places that are not the JRC. “They should be finding places in the community where they can live independently. Where they can get past this and receive services with their families and friends.” 

Advocates also told the local publication that they wanted more than a ban of the use of ESDs — now having not even that — and instead needed more from the state.

“A ban will do nothing to undo the decades of torture that people confined to JRC have had to suffer through until now… Massachusetts has a responsibility to make reparations to the survivors,” said one disability rights expert, Lydia Brown.

Now, survivors of the ESDs will have to start back at square one.