Stories

31 Shocks Later

Andre McCollins’s mother thought she’d finally found the right school for her son—one equipped to treat his behavioral and developmental problems. Then she took a closer look at that treatment.

New York | September 2, 2012


CHERYL MCCOLLINS GOT HER FIRST HINT that something was wrong when she answered her phone on the ­evening of October 25, 2002. “Andre had a bad day.” It was a case manager calling from the residential school her son ­attended in Massachusetts, roughly 215 miles away. Cheryl had received calls like this before, but the news tonight was ­nearly incomprehensible: That day, her son had received 31 electric shocks as punishment for misbehaving.

“Thirty-one?!” gasped Cheryl, standing in her kitchen in Brooklyn. “What did he do?”

Andre, 18 years old, had been diagnosed with mental retardation, and for the past twenty months he’d been living at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A school of last resort for troubled children and adults, the Rotenberg Center runs a controversial ­behavior-modification program, where the repertoire of punishments includes painful electric shocks.

It’s easy to tell which students are hooked up to the shock device: They’re the ones with backpacks. The device stays hidden inside, with wires extending from the backpack, running beneath their clothes, and attaching to electrodes strapped to their arms and legs. Staffers carry remote-control activators; when students display certain “targeted behaviors”—like hitting, yelling, or trying to remove their ­electrodes—an employee presses a button to deliver a two-second shock.

Cheryl had agreed to let the school’s staff attach this device to her son, figuring it might help control his behavior better than the Risperdal or Clonidine he’d taken. By now, he had been hooked up to it for seven months, and she could tell it scared him: When he’d leave the school with her wearing the device, all she had to do was hold up the activator to get him to stop misbehaving.

But what had happened today? She’d never heard of him getting more than one or two shocks in a day. When the case manager explained to her that Andre had an “uncontrolled episode,” she assumed he must have done something ­extraordinarily bad. Maybe he’d been breaking furniture. Or maybe he’d been hitting or biting the staff.

The next day, a Saturday, she called ­Andre’s residence and asked a worker to put him on the phone. “I’m s-s-s-sorry,” Andre said. “Help me.” She could hear ­terror in his voice; he didn’t usually stutter. When she called back on Sunday, he didn’t say anything. All she could make out was the sound of his sobbing.

On Monday, she traveled to Canton, a suburb of Boston, to bring Andre back to New York. In the past, whenever she’d ­visited, he had been alert, talking, excited to see her. Today she found him slumped in a chair, not moving, wrists tethered to his waist. She screamed his name, but he didn’t turn. When she moved her hand in front of his face, he didn’t blink.

“He’s catatonic!” she shouted.

With the help of three staffers, she got Andre into a van and headed off to Boston Children’s Hospital. A doctor in the ­emergency room told her he might have post-traumatic-stress disorder, and the hospital admitted him.

The next day, Cheryl returned to the ­Rotenberg Center to find out exactly what had happened. She knew the place was wired with surveillance cameras, and she demanded to see the footage. In a conference room, she, her sister, and a friend sat down with four senior staffers and Andre’s psychologist to watch the tape. Cheryl expected to see Andre sprinting around and wreaking havoc while employees tried to stop him with shocks. Instead, the footage showed him tied face down to a four-point restraint board, each limb held in place by a locked cuff, his head encased in a helmet. She learned he had been held in this position for six hours, hollering and pleading whenever he got another shock.

“Oooooowwwwww!!!!!”

Cheryl turned to the school’s officials. “Why are you shocking him?” she asked. “He’s tied down. He can’t hurt anyone.”

Robert von Heyn, then the director of psychology, explained that Andre had been shocked for “tensing up” his body, which was considered an unhealthy behavior.

Shocking someone for tensing up? This made no sense to Cheryl, and the more of the tape she saw, the madder she got. ­Sensing her growing rage, her sister nudged her hard beneath the table, as if to say: “Don’t let them see you get too angry, because they’ll destroy the tape.”

In the days and weeks after this meeting, Cheryl told everyone what had happened to her son: the police at the local precinct; the lawyers she called trying to find someone to help her sue the school; the doctors and nurses at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she next took Andre. Everyone had the same response: “They did what? Can we see this tape?” But she didn’t have the videotape—just a haunting ­memory of what she’d seen.

Over and over, she replayed in her mind her meeting with the school officials, wishing she’d thought to demand a copy of the tape before storming out the door. At the time, she had no way of knowing that it would take nearly ten years—until the spring of 2012—before she would finally be able to push this video into the public eye.

 

MATTHEW ISRAEL, the founder of the Rotenberg Center, was a freshman at Harvard in 1950 when he signed up for a course called Human Behavior. It was taught, as he later recalled, by “someone named Skinner.” Israel was merely trying to fill his science requirement, but after listening to the lessons of B.F. Skinner, the ­pioneer of behavioral psychology, he was hooked. He went to graduate school ­under Skinner and got a Ph.D. in 1960. And he became such a devotee that he started two communal houses inspired by Walden Two, Skinner’s utopian novel about an experimental community run on the principles he’d developed.

After Israel’s communal houses fizzled, he founded the Behavior Research Institute in Rhode Island in 1971. His idea was to use the lessons he’d learned from Skinner to try to help autistic and mentally ­retarded children, employing an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. Israel specialized in treating children nobody else knew what to do with: ones who smashed their heads against the floor, attacked their caretakers, broke the family TV.

At first there were no electric shocks. Israel and his workers relied instead on other “aversive treatments”: pinching the soles of their feet, squirting them in the face with water, forcing them to sniff ammonia. One student’s punishment for biting: ten spanks on the buttocks, a cool shower, ten “rolling pinches” on the arm, and a time-out wearing a “white-noise helmet.” New York State sent its first student to Israel in 1976.

A few years later, New York State officials did an inspection. “Superficially … the program is very impressive,” they wrote in a subsequent report. “Children, who are obviously handicapped, are engaged in activities and are seldom exhibiting inappropriate behaviors.” But, they concluded, “the children are controlled by the threat of punishment. When that threat is removed, they revert to their original behaviors.” Ultimately, the officials found the program’s effect on its students to be “the singular most depressing experience that team members have had in numerous visitations to human-service programs.”

Fifteen students from New York were in Israel’s care in December 1978, when the New York State Education Department ordered him to stop using physical punishments. The State later threatened to pull its kids if he didn’t comply. But the parents fought back, praising Israel for performing “miracles” on their children. A father from Staten Island told the New York Times that “the results are staggering.” Israel’s program seemed like a godsend to those parents who had few other options, whose children had been rejected or expelled from many other places. And in instances when their children’s behavior was extremely self-destructive—trying to gouge out their eyes, banging their heads so often they were at risk of brain damage—some parents credited Israel with saving lives.

Eventually he moved the entire operation to Massachusetts and renamed it the Judge Rotenberg Center, after the judge who handed him a key legal victory in the eighties, permitting him to keep using physical punishments. Israel began using electric shocks on his students in the early nineties; he invented his own shock device, and the Rotenberg Center is the only place in the country that uses it.

The center has weathered criticism from special-ed experts, psychologists, state regulators, and disability advocacy groups. Some critics believe no student should ever be shocked, while others accuse Israel of overusing his device, shocking kids for ­behaviors as minor as swearing. (Israel did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Over the years, Israel created an environment so tightly controlled—and so unusual—that it seemed to have little relationship to the outside world. Every aspect of the Rotenberg Center was extreme, from its rewards program (he created an elaborate video arcade, part of the “Big Reward Store,” for kids who were well behaved) to its Disney-like décor (two aluminum dogs with neon-purple collars, each almost five feet tall, stood by the entrance). And the school even had its own vocabulary: Its shock device was known as the “graduated electronic decelerator” or GED. Staffers didn’t shock residents but instead gave them GED “applications.”

Israel sought to control not only his residents’ behavior but also the employees’. He wired his entire facility with surveillance cameras, which he used to make sure his employees were administering his program correctly. A team of staffers—known as “monitors”—watched these cameras 24/7. And he instituted a program encouraging employees to tell on their co-workers by writing up evaluations about one ­another. Negative write-ups were called “performance improvement opportunities” or PIOs. They ranged from a “friendly reminder” (“Please remember to follow staff dress code”) to “severe” (“failure to follow JRC policies”). Employees who received too many serious PIOs could find themselves out of a job.

 

CHERYL MCCOLLINS GAVE BIRTH to Andre, her only child, in 1984. She was 16, and in those early years, she raised him with the help of her mother in a house they shared in Lefferts Gardens. The first inkling she got that something was not quite right came when Andre was an infant. Every time she took him to the pediatrician, she discovered he’d missed another milestone: rolling over, tracking with his eyes, sitting up.

She enrolled him in the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Brooklyn when he was 2. At age 5, he moved to a special-ed classroom in a public school. Despite his developmental disabilities—a test later pegged his IQ at 50—Cheryl did everything she could to help him have a normal childhood. She took him out to restaurants; tried to teach him how to shoot baskets; pedaled alongside him in the park while he zipped around on Rollerblades.

It wasn’t easy trying to support them both on a nurse’s salary—she and Andre’s father had long since split up—and as the years rolled by, the job of raising Andre became ever more challenging. If she forgot to lock the gate, he might run away; once he was gone all night. He often talked to himself. When he got upset, he’d break things. Or he would kick or hit. At age 10, he was hospitalized in psych wards three times for rage attacks.

Doctors gave him myriad diagnoses: not only mental retardation, but also pervasive developmental disorder (of which autism is one form) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, impulse-control disorder, and conduct disorder. His condition became so severe that Cheryl decided to send him to a residential school in Dutchess County when he was 10. By 12, he was on his second school, this time in Pennsylvania, where she visited almost every week. He was there for more than three years, until the fall of 2000, when she heard that another boy had sexually assaulted him.

She called the Board of Education for help finding a new school, and an employee told her about the Rotenberg Center. Stepping inside for the first time, Cheryl was dazzled by the décor. There was nothing institutional about this place; the carpet felt five inches thick. “I thought the place was beautiful,” she recalls. “I thought these people really took pride in what they did.” She loved that residents lived in lavishly decorated houses—not dorms. The boys wore button-down shirts and dress pants. And there were surveillance cameras everywhere; she couldn’t imagine a better way to ensure that Andre wouldn’t be victimized again.

School officials told her about their program and explained how the electric-shock device works. The staffers showed her a video, too, of other students who’d been hooked up to the GED and appeared to have been completely transformed by it. “I was so excited,” she says. “I was like, ‘He’s going to be cured? This can really stop all those behaviors, the aggression? And he won’t break up my furniture, he won’t fight?’ ‘Yes, this device does it.’ I was like, ‘Wow! You’re kidding! Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?’

 

WHEN HE ENTERED the Rotenberg Center, in February of 2001, Andre McCollins was 16 years old. A report by a psychologist described him as a “well-groomed young man with a pleasant disposition” who spoke of “wanting to get his driver’s license, becoming a police officer, and having a girlfriend.” It also noted, however, that he “expressed a fear of strangers and of being hurt by others.”

Rotenberg officials needed a number of approvals, including from parents and a local court, before they could use their electric-shock device on a new student. They went to court to obtain this permission for Andre nine months after he arrived, and in March 2002 they outfitted him with the shock device. His “treatment plan,” which was approved by his psychologist, eventually listed 29 behaviors for which he would receive a shock. These included aggressive acts (like kicking or biting), nonviolent acts (screaming, any attempt to remove his electrodes), and also “health-dangerous behaviors” (including tensing up his entire body).

Over the next six months, Andre received one or two shocks during a typical week. Many weeks he got none at all. And one week in September, he received a shock though he’d done nothing wrong, which is known as a “misapplication.”

Israel was a fierce critic of psychotropic medications because of their potentially harmful side effects and overuse, and most Rotenberg Center residents were weaned off these drugs. The school had taken Andre off his Risperdal after he arrived—with his mother’s consent—then restarted it when he began acting bizarrely. After he started wearing a backpack containing the shock device, a psychiatrist weaned him off the Risperdal once again.

The bizarre behaviors returned. When his mother brought him home to celebrate his 18th birthday in mid-October, she noticed he was talking to himself more than usual. When she took him to Costco, he began spinning around with his arms extended in a circle in front of him, fingers touching. She hustled him home and called two friends: “Please come over here; I’m scared; I don’t know what this is.” She cut the visit short and took Andre back to the Rotenberg Center early.

“I know you don’t believe in medication here,” she recalls telling his case manager, “but Andre needs his medication.”

 

EIGHT DAYS LATER—on his 605th day at the Rotenberg Center—Andre McCollins woke up, as usual, with electrodes strapped to his limbs. At 8 a.m., according to a form filled out by a staffer, “Andre sat at the Dining Room table and quietly talked to himself, made grimacing faces and did subtle karate moves.” The ride from his residence to the school building was about 25 miles, and on the way there he received one shock for allegedly hitting a worker.

Afterward, the employees put him in waist and leg restraints, and placed a ­helmet on his head; his treatment plan mandated that he spend 30 minutes in restraints after he received a shock. Surveillance footage shows two staff members escorting him into Classroom 15 at 9:33 a.m.

Like many residents at the Rotenberg Center, Andre did not do well with change, and in the last few days, he’d endured many: He’d just moved to a new residence, just switched case managers, and this was his first day in a new classroom. Like the other students in the room, Andre sat at a desk, facing a computer, his back to the teacher.

A worker told him, “Take off your jacket.”

Andre didn’t move.

“Take off your jacket, please.”

Again, no response.

An employee pressed the button to activate his shock device.

“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!”

Andre fell to the ground and tried to crawl under his desk. Four adults grabbed him and wrestled him to the floor, holding him down while he struggled. His psychologist brought in a restraint board, and the employees moved him onto it, face down, eight of them surrounding him as they bound his wrists and ankles to the board.

Usually after Andre got a shock and was restrained, he’d calm down, but on this day he only got more agitated. The more upset he became, the more he tensed up his body—and the more he tensed up, the more shocks he received. Between 10 a.m. and about 11 a.m., the workers shocked him fourteen times. Each press of the button triggered a loud, high-pitched alarm—informing employees the shock had been delivered—while Andre’s cries echoed down the corridor.

“No, don’t do that!”

“I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“No, please.”

“Stop! Stop! For real!”

“Help me! Help! Help!”

Employees came and went throughout the morning and into the afternoon. They attached two more electrodes, so Andre had five total: on both arms, both legs, and his torso. Following the usual protocol, they tested the batteries on his shock device; rotated his electrodes so they wouldn’t leave marks on his skin; offered him water. They studied his “behavior recording sheet” to figure out exactly what behaviors they were supposed to punish. And they documented each shock with the reason it was given: “Scream” or “Tense Up.”

Hour after hour went by and nobody knelt down next to Andre to try to calm him. Attention was considered a reward—and a student who’s exhibiting “targeted behaviors” is not supposed to receive any. When the staffers did speak to Andre, they were required to follow a script, like a case manager did at 1:25 p.m., when she pushed the button for shock eighteen, then said: “Andre, no full-body tense-ups.” If any of the workers thought these shocks were excessive, they kept it to themselves. They all knew that if they didn’t shock a student when they were supposed to, the phone in the classroom would ring and there would be a monitor on the line ordering them to press the button.

By midafternoon, the workers had administered so many shocks they were having trouble keeping track of them all. At 3:12 p.m., one worker said to another: “Martin, what is he at now?”

“I think 26.”

Finally, at 3:48 p.m., Dr. Israel walked in. He stood at a distance, arms folded across his chest, and assessed the scene. He concluded, as he later testified in court, “The program that was designed really needed to be changed.” He ordered his employees to stop shocking Andre. On Andre’s daily recording sheet, a staffer wrote, “All behaviors are on ignore until further notice.”

To calm Andre so they could remove him from the restraint board, workers tried to set up what they call “behavioral contracts” with him. A female employee crouched beside him and in a peppy voice offered him potential rewards:

“Want some French toast and bacon?”

“Do you want some orange juice?”

“Do you want some soda?”

Soaked with sweat, he continued thrashing and screaming—“No! No! No!”—though eventually he began to quiet down. By 4:20 p.m., the employees had moved him off the board and onto a chair, but he was not himself. He wouldn’t speak, and he wouldn’t eat.

 

OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS, the Judge Rotenberg Center continued to expand. Israel sent recruiters to New York State and elsewhere to try to drum up referrals, and he began ­taking in many more of what he called “higher-functioning” kids: students who are not autistic or mentally retarded but have diagnoses like attention-deficit disorder or bipolar disorder. Between 2000 and 2005, the facility’s annual revenues grew from $18 million to more than $50 million. By 2006, New York State supplied nearly 60 percent of Israel’s residents—and about $30 million a year. (The annual cost per student was $220,000.)

In the fall of 2006, I visited while working on a story for another publication, and I found the place packed with teenagers from New York City, many from poor neighborhoods. One 15-year-old girl said she recognized other kids from her days in Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s adolescent psych ward. Two young men said they’d come straight from Rikers.

As new teenagers flooded into the facility, pushing its total population above 230, Andre McCollins was all but forgotten. But the events of October 25, 2002, haunted at least one employee: a case manager named Allen Gwynn. He’d been inside Classroom 15 that day—and he couldn’t forget how Andre had appeared when he was taken off the restraint board. “He looked like he was gone, like they’d beat him and broke him,” he says. “It just didn’t seem right.”

To clear his head, Gwynn wrote a brief essay detailing some of his misgivings about his job, including that Andre “went into a catatonic state.” He stored his writings at home and kept his mouth shut at work; he didn’t want to lose his job. But when his marriage collapsed near the end of 2006 and he moved out of his home, he left behind a box of student case files.

His wife told him to fetch the box or she’d take it to the Rotenberg Center. What she didn’t know was that it also contained his personal writings. He didn’t pick up the box; she made good on her promise; and after Gwynn’s bosses read his words, Israel ordered him fired. When Gwynn filed a complaint with a state agency protesting his firing, a lawyer for the Judge Rotenberg Center defended its decision in a letter, explaining “Gwynn was terminated for not sharing the JRC philosophy.”

 

SOON AFTER SHE SAW the video of her son’s shocking, Cheryl McCollins started cold-calling lawyers and eventually found her way to Lubin & Meyer, a medical-­malpractice firm in Boston. This past April, with Lubin & Meyer representing her, Cheryl’s lawsuit against the Rotenberg Center went to trial in a courtroom in Dedham, Massachusetts. The suit accused Israel, Andre’s psychologist, and the center’s then–director of psychology of being negligent in their treatment of Andre.

The Rotenberg Center’s attorneys tried to prevent the video of Andre’s shocking from becoming public, but Cheryl and her lawyers prevailed. When the lawyers played snippets on the TV in the courtroom, the judge permitted Fox 25 to record it. Night after night, local TV news stations aired footage of Andre being shocked.

On the afternoon of April 20, Matthew Israel, now 78, stepped onto the witness stand. He wore a black suit and a tie, and in a calm, deliberate voice, he defended the school he’d founded 41 years earlier, his hands resting on the oak barrier in front of him. Cheryl watched from the front row, a well-worn copy of the Bible tucked inside her purse on the bench beside her.

Israel admitted he had barely known Andre. “What comes to my attention generally would be the problem students,” he said. And, by Rotenberg standards at least, Andre was not especially problematic. “He was doing so well.” Cheryl’s attorney, Benjamin Novotny, asked Israel why he didn’t check on Andre in the days after he’d been shocked, when he was barely eating or walking or talking. “I did not have a reason to believe there was a special need for me to go in and look at him,” Israel said.

Today, Israel no longer runs the Rotenberg Center. He was forced to give up the position last year after being indicted in the same courthouse for obstructing justice. Those criminal charges stemmed from an unrelated incident dating back to 2007. One night that summer, a former student from New York had prank-called a Rotenberg residence at 2 a.m., pretending he was an employee in the monitoring department. He claimed to have seen three boys misbehaving earlier in the evening, and he ordered the workers to pull them out of bed and shock them. The employees complied. In the rec room, they tied two teenagers onto a restraint board and began shocking them.

Eventually the workers figured out the call was a hoax—but not before they shocked one boy 29 times and the other 77 times. Prosecutors later accused Israel of ordering his staff to destroy that night’s footage. Israel insisted he thought the investigation was complete, but as part of a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to step down. He never admitted any guilt, and after five years probation, the charges against him will be dismissed.

The Rotenberg Center is now run by his longtime assistant executive director. The school refused to answer any questions for this story. (This account is largely based on pretrial depositions, court records, and trial testimony.) Today, the Rotenberg Center has some 230 residents, and a little more than one third are approved to receive electric shocks—down from one half a few years ago. Most likely, the percent of students who receive shocks will continue to drop. Since 2009, the New York State Board of Regents has banned the use of the shock device on any new students from New York, and last fall Massachusetts prohibited the use of shocks for all new students.

In the meantime, the school continues to advertise for new employees. A recent posting on Craigslist describes an opening for a job with “excellent” benefits in “a happy, motivated environment” at a “fast-growing” program.

 

ANDRE MCCOLLINS never returned to the Rotenberg Center. He spent 37 days in the hospital—in Boston, then back in New York—before going home. In the weeks after the incident, he seemed terrified, his mother recalls, constantly telling her, “Be careful! Be careful!” She says she had to hide any device that resembled a shock activator—the TV remote, her cell phone—in case he spotted it and started to panic. And he no longer slept through the night; instead, she says, he would stay awake in the dark and call out her name.

Today Andre is 27 years old and lives in a residence in Queens. He comes home most weekends, but the days when they’d dash off to the park together, Andre on his Rollerblades, are no longer. “No, no,” he says. “I might fall.” Now he just wants to stay indoors and watch movies in the living room, his chair rolled up close to the screen. He didn’t attend the trial, and his mother didn’t talk to him about it; she didn’t want to traumatize him. The trial lasted two weeks, ending in the middle of jury deliberations, when the lawyers made a last-minute, confidential settlement deal. Afterward, an attorney for the Rotenberg Center continued to insist the defendants had done nothing wrong. With the settlement in hand, Cheryl is now searching for a new residence for Andre.

After fighting for nearly a decade to make Andre’s video public, Cheryl found herself forced to watch it day after day as she sat through the trial. Each time Andre received an electric shock, her shoulders would rise to her ears, her whole body shuddering. To get through these moments, she’d tell herself, “If Andre had to do this for seven hours, you can sit here and suffer yourself.” At times she felt as if she, too, were being punished—for sending him to this school in the first place. Guilt overwhelmed her, and in her mind she’d say to him, over and over, “Andre, I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t know.”

 

 

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