Dr. Matthew Israel, the Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in Psychology who founded the center, started out in 1971 with a small school at which he tested “a large repertoire of punishments: spraying kids in the face with water, shoving ammonia under their noses, pinching the soles of their feet, smacking them with a spatula, forcing them to wear a ‘white-noise helmet’ that assaulted them with static.”
Later Israel moved on to electric shocks, which are disseminated by remote control via devices the children carry around in backpacks.
The state of Massachussetts has twice tried to shut Israel’s center down because of lawsuits. But both times parents rallied to keep it open. The Rotenberg Center is often the last resort for parents of severely mentally disabled and emotionally challenged children. They turn no one away. And with an annual tuition of $220,000 per student, they can afford such luxuries.
What worries many critics is not only the severity of punishments applied at Rotenberg, but the “one punishment fits all” policy. The school boards both “low-functioning” children — who are severely mentally disabled — and those with more common disorders like OCD and ADD, considered “high functioning.” Students are shocked for a wide range of “misbehaviors” ranging from extreme violence and self-abuse — such as slamming one’s head against the floor — to minor infractions such as swearing and nagging.
When CBS’s Connie Chung investigated the center in 1993, she was eviscerated by the other networks after a carefully planned media counterattack by Israel himself. Jennifer Gonnerman’s piece in Mother Jones received a similar, though quieter, backlash. One glance at the article’s comment section on MotherJones.com is evidence enough that Gonnerman touch a nerve. And a lengthy response from Israel, posted on the Mother Jones site, on the center’s own website, and published in The Patriot Ledger of South Boston shows that Israel isn’t going down without a fight.