It seems simple.

Nothing calling itself an “educational center” should be allowed to shock its patients using an electric device strong enough to sear skin.

But it has been happening — right in our backyard — for four decades.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, which treats its patients with what it calls “aversive conditioning,” is based in Canton, but it has group homes in Attleboro, Mansfield, Norton, Rehoboth and Seekonk, according to its website. Back in the 1980s, the center, known then as the Behavior Research Institute, generated a firestorm of controversy when two students died in Attleboro and Seekonk group homes.

The state attempted to shut down BRI, but a landmark ruling by Judge Ernest Rotenberg of Attleboro overturned the aversive conditioning ban imposed by the state. BRI founder Matthew Israel decided to rename his institute for Judge Rotenberg.

School administrators have called the shocks a last resort to prevent dangerous behaviors — such as head-banging, throwing furniture or attacking teachers or classmates — by aggressive, self-harming patients with mental disabilities. The JRC, as the center is now known, is the only center in the country to use the practice.

But the Food and Drug Administration on March 4 banned the treatment. The decision followed years of pressure from disability rights groups and mental health experts who have called the treatment outdated, ineffective and unethical.

School officials plan to challenge the government ban in court. A parents group also defended the practice and said it would fight the ban.

Ah, the parents.

That’s the really shocking part of the story.

You would think that no parent in their right mind would subject their child to that type of treatment.

But the biggest advocates for this treatment have come from patients’ parents, who describe the horrors of raising a child with severe tendencies to harm themselves and others.

A Boston Magazine article once profiled some of these patients, patients like P.J.

One year, at a holiday meal with the extended family, P.J. sneaked into the bathroom and sipped Drano. He was rushed to the hospital and treated for chemical burns.

Another time, P.J. used one of his father’s razor blades on his arms, then ran to his mother to show her the bloody mess. P.J. was known to ram his body into walls, running at full speed. He tipped out dresser drawers, knocked over shelves of books. P.J. bit himself so much that a giant callus formed between his thumb and wrist, growing larger every time he drew fresh blood.

“I hate the thought of my son getting shocked,” his mother told the magazine. “It bothers me terribly. But if you asked me whether I would rather him be shocked for a short period of time or beat himself up or bite himself severely or slice himself up with a razor blade, the answer is simple.”

Another father described similar violent behaviors, then said, “If it were not for this program, my son would be dead. And if it weren’t for that, I would blow his freakin’ brains out. That’s what I would do for my son.”

Think about that. Parents of the Judge Rotenberg Center would rather shock their children than see them hurt anymore. They would rather kill their own than have them face life without the shocking treatment.

Like I said, it seems simple.

But it’s not.

MIKE KIRBY, a Sun Chronicle columnist, can be reached at

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