Bare Life


Shock therapy disputed

March 21, 2006

The state’s highest education-policy board is considering a proposal to stop sending New York school children to out-of-state facilities that use electric shock to treat psychological disorders.

A staff report to the Board of Regents yesterday targets the Judge Rotenberg Center a week after a Freeport mother who opposes the therapy announced she would sue her local school district for sending her son to the Massachusetts school. Experts say no other school in the nation uses mild electric shock to modify students’ behavior.

Of the 151 New York state students at Rotenberg — including those from New York City schools and more than 20 Long Island districts — 77 are now receiving the controversial “aversion therapy.” The report expresses concern that the therapy is not only used on students who are most “cognitively impaired” or severely “self-destructive,” but also for those who are “higher functioning,” with emotional disabilities, attention-deficit disorders and problems such as truancy and aggression.

“To some degree, it brings back memories of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,'” said Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative on the Board of Regents, referring to the 1962 novel about abuses of shock therapy in a mental hospital.

Parents of students at Rotenberg said they will do anything to show the board that the treatment has saved their children’s lives.

“I’d go to Albany if I have to,” said Arthur Perazzo, of Howard Beach, father of a 20-year-old autistic man.

Agreed Marcia Shear of Roslyn Heights, mother of a 13-year-old autistic girl: “I’ll fight it with every ounce in my body. If you don’t know this type of child you have no right to make any kind of judgment on treatment.”

Although its methods often ignite controversy, Rotenberg, which has about 200 children and about 50 adults, is licensed by the Massachusetts education and mental retardation departments. The aversion-therapy device — the Graduated Electronic Decelerator — is approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a neurological therapeutic device. Students wear it as a backpack, and electrodes are placed on their arms, torso and legs. A transmitter controlled by staff emits a shock that lasts no longer than two seconds.


A law that seeks to decide on life is embodied in a life that coincides with death.

– Giorgio Agamben, “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life”


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