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A teacher wears shock treatment transmitters during class at Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton. Credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images (faces blurred to protect the privacy of the students)

A Massachusetts school can continue using electric shock devices to enforce corrective behavior in students with intellectual disabilities, a federal court ruled this month.

Why it matters: Critics including the United Nations have described the controversial practice as "torture."

  • Judge Rotenberg Educational Center treats patients with a range of disabilities and uses the devices to correct self-harming or aggressive behavior in students with psychiatric, behavioral or emotional challenges.

State of play: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a ban of the practice in March 2020, warning that it can cause long-lasting trauma.

  • The ban was national, but the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center was the only school known to have used the device in recent years, the New York Times noted.
  • Evidence of the devices' efficacy is "weak," the FDA said. Delivering shocks results in "an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury."
  • Critics say it also abuses people with disabilities. Shain Neumeier, a lawyer who has represented the center's former residents, told the Times that many are unable to give consent themselves.
    • "This approach involves a lot of dehumanization, an idea that you’re basically training a dog," they said. "Or you’re trying to get a person to do what you want, rather than follow their own goals and get their own needs met."
  • Former residents have spoken out about enduring burn marks, accidental shocks and other abuse.
    • "It’s not safe. It doesn’t feel safe," Jennifer Msumba, a student from 2002 to 2009, said in a 2014 testimony to the FDA. "I ended up having nightmares weekly, if not nightly."

How it works: Students wear a special fanny pack with two protruding wires that are attached to the arm or leg. A staff member with a remote-control device can then trigger quick shocks to the skin.

  • The center has used such devices for decades, according to the Times. Parents must request and consent to the practice. A local judge also has to approve it for use on specific students.
  • Some students' parents have defended the policy, arguing it put a stop to harmful behavior when nothing else could.
    • One parent told the Times that his son, who had been inducing vomiting, was "nearly dead" when he arrived for treatment at the facility.
  • The devices are currently approved for use on 55 people. All are adults, though some were first subjected to the treatment as children.

What they're saying: The judges ruled 2-1 last week that the federal ban interferes with doctors' ability to treat patients at the school.

  • "[T]he FDA lacks the statutory authority to ban a medical device for a particular use," the opinion stated, noting that the decision does not address the actual merits of the ban.
  • "With the treatment, these residents can continue to participate in enriching experiences, enjoy visits with their families and, most importantly, live in safety and freedom from self-injurious and aggressive behaviors," the school said in a statement following the ruling, per Reuters.
  • The FDA declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Go deeper

ACLU sues Texas school district for punishing boys with long hair

An instructor leads a classroom discussion at the Xavier Academy in Houston, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of seven students in a Texas school district over what they call a discriminatory policy requiring boys, but not girls, to wear short hair.

Driving the news: School officials in the Magnolia Independent School District have punished boys for having long hair, including one 9-year-old student who was forced to serve an in-school suspension for a month and be removed from campus, according to the lawsuit.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
24 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Jared Kushner wants to Trump-proof his private equity future

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Jared Kushner appears to have convinced the private equity market that he'll stick with his new firm, called Affinity Partners, even if his father-in-law returns to the White House.

The big picture: Private equity is littered with former presidential advisers and cabinet officials, and Trump's is proving to be no different.

54 mins ago - World

Ukraine president to Biden: "There are no minor incursions"

Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded on Thursday to President Biden's suggestion that a "minor incursion" by Russia may not draw the same response as a large invasion, which some in Kyiv saw as inviting Russian aggression.

What he's saying: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power," Zelensky tweeted.