The family of a former Massachusetts student who received electric shocks at a special needs school has agreed to receive $65,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming the treatment was inhumane and violated the student’s civil rights.
The privately operated Judge Rotenberg Center in suburban Canton uses the controversial treatment, known as aversive therapy, to control aggressive behavior and prevent severely autistic students from injuring themselves or others. A device administers the shocks in two-second intervals.
The lawsuit was filed in 2006 on behalf of Antwone Nicholson, then 17, of Freeport, N.Y., who attended the school for about four years. Nicholson’s mother, Evelyn, said Wednesday she agreed to the settlement because it was “time to move on,” and she felt her legal battle had already helped change when and how the shocks are given.
In a statement, the school termed the settlement “minimal” and said that its insurance company requested the case be settled for far less than the legal fees necessary to obtain a final dismissal. The suit initially sought millions of dollars in damages, the statement said, though Kenneth Mollins, the Nicholsons’ lawyer, said he could not recall any specific dollar amount being sought.
The residential school is believed to be the only one in the country that uses the therapy and has been a lightning rod for criticism over its 38-year history. Still, parents of many students say the treatment has been a successful last resort in preventing their severely autistic children from injuring themselves by hitting their heads or other actions.
Kevin Ryan, a New York-based attorney who defended JRC, said the settlement absolves the center of all claims by the family. The school said Evelyn Nicholson was made fully aware of the shock treatment when she signed an individualized education plan for her son.
Mollins said Nicholson believed that the therapy would only be used to prevent Antwone from hurting himself or others, but that was not the case.
“There was a whole list of criteria by which he would be shocked. If he just said no to a directive, they would shock him. If he failed to pay attention to a directive, they would shock him,” said Mollins.
“It violated his civil rights. It’s inhumane treatment is what we alleged,” he said.
Evelyn Nicholson said her son pleaded with her to remove him from the school.
“He told me that if I really loved him, I would get him out of there,” she said.
Now 21, her son is living at home but still has “flashbacks” from the treatment, she said.
The appellate division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed in June claims in the lawsuit against the Freeport, N.Y., school district, which helped the family place the teenager at the Rotenberg Center. A separate lawsuit brought against the state of New York was dismissed earlier, lawyers said.
“What emerges from this case is an articulation from a wide range of experts and JRC parents themselves that while this therapy is not intended for everyone, it is lifesaving and highly effective as a strategy to control violent and self-destructive behaviors, Dr. Matthew Israel, the center’s executive director and co-founder, said in a statement.
The school said shock therapy is used on less than 20 percent of students and only if positive reinforcement fails to control behavior.
The U.S. Justice Department said in February that it had begun a “routine investigation” into whether the use of shock therapy by JRC violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. More than 30 advocacy groups signed a letter sent to the Justice Department last September asking that it take action to end the shocks.
In August 2007, Massachusetts officials investigated an incident in which staffers at the school wrongly gave two students dozens of shocks after a prank call from a person posing as a supervisor.
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