D.C. Schools Chancellor to Investigate “School of Shock” That Mother Jones Exposed Saying, “It’s Nuts On Multiple Levels”

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


In her Washington Examiner column, Jonetta Rose Barras follows up on Mother Jones‘ “School of Shock” piece and prompts the new D.C. Schools Chancellor to investigate why Washington is sending 10 kids to this controversial facility. Writes Barras:

The District government is spending millions to send children to a controversial special education residential facility in Massachusetts that uses electric shock to discipline students. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton accepts individuals diagnosed as autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar and emotionally disturbed. It is “the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers, or child molesters, or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons,” says Jennifer Gonnerman, writing in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.

Typically, a student at Rotenberg is equipped with a “backpack containing five 2-pound, battery-operated devices, each connected to an electrode attached to” the person’s skin. The student is zapped for so-called misbehavior, which could include minor offenses like “yelling or cursing,” according to Gonnerman.

Gonnerman’s story — “School of Shock” — focuses on students from New York and Massachusetts. But five other states and the District send individuals to the facility. The District’s connection isn’t detailed. Still, the horrific portrait painted sent me racing to determine how many children from this city are at Rotenberg.

For weeks, I sought answers. The Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health claim no relations with Rotenberg. Marla Oakes, head of special education reform at DCPS, failed to respond to repeated requests for information. (Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee can’t clean the central administration fast enough.)

The chief financial officer reports the District paid Rotenberg nearly $4 million — $809,498.50 by the Department of Human Services and $2.93 million by the DCPS — between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2007.

Matthew Israel, psychologist, founder and executive director of Rotenberg, confirms 10 District children are being treated at the facility.During a telephone interview, he takes exception to Gonnerman’s article, calling it “an obviously negative hatchet job.”

He directs me to the center’s Web site for a detailed rebuttal, in which he calls the center the last resort for many of its residents; says electric shock is an “extremely effective” aversive that is “used for only 43 percent of JRC’s school-age students.”

In a conversation Wednesday, Rhee told me she has asked for an investigation into the Rotenberg treatment of District students. “It’s nuts on multiple levels,” she said.

For decades the District has sent some of its most vulnerable children to out-of-state facilities. A 2006 D.C. Board of Education white paper indicated there are more than 11,000 special education students. Twenty percent of them attend 131 private institutions; 91 are residential.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to bring District students home. Let’s hope he starts with the 10 at Rotenberg. Tax dollars shouldn’t be used for a treatment modality that includes the regular infliction of pain on children already struggling against enormous odds.

Indeed. And I concur with my old Washington City Paper coworker Jonetta, that it is long since time that D.C. clean house when it comes to the school system and the special ed program in particular. Sounds like Teach For America alum Rhee is game to try. Godspeed.

More on other officials taking on the Rotenberg Center here.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest