Massachusetts school wins court battle to use electric shock therapy on self-harming disabled students

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2014 file photo, a therapist checks the ankle strap of an electrical shocking device on a student during an exercise program at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. The student, who was born with a developmental disorder, wears the device so administrators can control violent episodes. On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it is banning a class of controversial devices used to discourage aggressive, self-injurious behavior in patients with mental disabilities. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
A therapist checks the ankle strap of an electrical shocking device on a student at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.

  • A Massachusetts school has won an appeal to use electric shock therapy on mentally disabled pupils.
  • A federal court ruled that an earlier FDA ban on the therapy had been outside the agency’s area of authority.
  • The United Nations previously said the center’s use of electric shock therapy amounted to “torture”.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A school for developmentally disabled students in Massachusetts has won a controversial appeal to use electric shock therapy on self-harming pupils.

In March of last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of electric shock devices as treatment for individuals engaging in self-injuring or aggressive behaviors.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, which is the only place in the country to use electric shock therapy for this purpose, petitioned the ban with the support of parents and guardians of patients who receive the treatment.

This week a federal appeals court overturned the ban, stating that it was a regulation of the practice of medicine, which is outside the FDA’s area of authority.

According to the court filing, The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center treats patients with the most severe mental disabilities that other facilities could not successfully treat.

It describes common self-injurious behaviors among the center’s patients, including head-banging and self-biting, which have at times been severe enough to cause self-inflicted brain trauma, broken bones, and even blindness.

The center manufactures its own electric shock devices, which work by administering brief shocks through electrodes attached to the skin of patients. If they engage in self-harm a shock is remotely administered to try and discourage it. Approximately 20% of the center’s patients are being treated with them at any given time.

In a statement following the ruling, the school said it was pleased to be able to continue to use the “life-saving treatment of last resort”.

“With the treatment, these residents can continue to participate in enriching experiences, enjoy visits with their families and, most importantly, live in safety and freedom from self-injurious and aggressive behaviors,” it said.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center has been highly criticized by disability rights activists and even the United Nations, which has previously said the center’s use of electric shock therapy amounted to “torture”.

The president of Disability Rights International, Laurie Ahern, previously told The Guardian, “The idea of using electric shocks to torture children has been recognized as unconscionable around the world – the US government has got to respond to this and put a stop to it.”

Court documents stated that while the FDA had found little evidence for the device’s long-term effectiveness in stopping self-harming, it did not have the legal authority to ban an otherwise legal device from a particular use.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center treats over 300 individuals, 55 of which are approved for electric shock therapy, according to Massachusetts News.

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