Things that make you say, “Hmn…”

Fresh news story about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center from the Associated Press:

The security camera videotapes of recent incidents at the JRC were destroyed, despite direct orders for them to be saved. The incidents involved two students who were wrongly given numerous electrical shocks by staff members, as a result of prank phone calls.

One student was shocked 77 times and the other 29 times after a prank caller posing as a supervisor ordered the treatments at a Judge Rotenberg Educational Center group home in August. The boys are 16 and 19 years old and one was treated for first-degree burns.

The Disabled Persons Protection Commission planned to release the report Tuesday concluding that one of the teenagers was severely physically and emotionally abused by the treatments. The commission has referred the case to the Norfolk district attorney’s office.

One of the Commission’s investigators had requested copies of the tapes because they were needed to complete a report.

But school officials declined, saying they “did not want any possibility of the images getting into the media.” The investigator told the school to preserve a copy so state police could use it in their criminal investigation. A trooper later told the investigator the tapes had been destroyed.

Amazing how often tapes of alarming or incriminating events get erased (Watergate) or destroyed (waterboarding).

State Sen. Brian Joyce, who has long sought to ban shock therapy from the school, said Israel and his staff should be investigated for obstruction of justice.

“I believe the tape was intentionally destroyed because it was incriminating,” said Joyce, a Democrat. “I intend to ask the attorney general to investigate.”

False Dilemmas: How to Sell Pain

This post is a part of Blogging Against Aversives 1-14-08

When a business tries to sell a product or service that no one else has, they might be on the cutting edge of invention or they might have something that no one else wants to sell.

There is only one place in the United States where electrical shocks are doled out repeatedly throughout the day to residents (many of whom are school-age children) as a means of punishment. These two-second shocks are described as feeling like a bee sting, and people to whom this is prescribed must wear the equipment through their waking hours, so such stings to their torso or limbs are unavoidable. According to a recent article in Mother Jones:

Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab.

The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. Over its 36-year history, six children have died in its care, prompting numerous lawsuits and government investigations.

JRC is called a “special needs school” because the student-age residents sit at computers every day to do instructional programs. Many of the residents have a variety of psychiatric or learning difficulties, including autism, cognitive disabilities, ADHD, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or other problems. No psychiatric medications are allowed, and counselling is minimal; whatever the sources of the resident’s problems, the treatment is the same.

The problem inherent in such a single-solution scheme is that it does not address the causes of the resident’s problems, just the inappropriate behavior that results from them. It’s no small wonder that even when people leave, the root problems are not solved, and they continue to have difficulties. Therapeutic approaches need to be individualised — what works for a child with depression and OCD is going to be different than what works for a student with Asperger’s and ADHD. Treatments cannot be designed by diagnostic labels (which are generally descriptive rather than prescriptive) but more by what their individual problems are, and how those problems developed.

The Rotenberg Center does not sell something cutting edge; pain aversives were first trialled in the 1960’s, but have not been used by anyone else, and has been considered to be not within “best practice” for years. Even by the 1980’s, Dr Skinner had an about-face on the use of aversives, and declared that they are not beneficial; although they may temporarily stop a problem behavior, they are not effective in the long term, and the recipient responds by escaping, attacking back, or sinking into the apathy of learned helplessness.

Centers like JRC that bill themselves as solutions for intractable children play upon parents’ fears, and describe problems in exaggerated terms. The premise — and promise — is based upon a giant false dilemma, that there are no other options, it’s the place of last resort, and it’s use their methods or else the child will simply go wild. Parents who have not previously found an effective solution are willing to hand their children over because they are desperate.

JRC is unique because they have cornered the market on a service that no one else wants to sell. That does not make it a good or a necessary thing. I find the whole concept utterly horrifying.

Other posts on JRC:

A Very Painful Problem Certainly, zapping someone with unavoidable, painful electrical stings on bare skin will stop them in their tracks. It stops the self-injury by that default. Punishment will stop people from doing something, at least while the threat of punishment still exists. But it doesn’t help us figure out why the person was hurting themself. It doesn’t teach them how to identify when they are stressed, and to learn different, effective, safe ways of dealing with those stresses. There are students who have been incarcerated at the Judge Rotenberg Center for years past their legal majority. That system does not provide them much in the way of tools to live successfully outside of the institutional environment. …

If hurting yourself is bad, and hurting others is bad, how is it then okay to use intensely painful aversives on someone? We don’t even use things like this in prisons. Why is it deemed “okay” by school districts and courts for children with learning disabilities and emotional problems to be subjected to this kind of treatment? People who injure themselves have a very painful set of problems. But we as a society have an even greater problem. Allowing such treatment to happen and continue is unconscionable.

I Didn’t Ask for That Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed. Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self.

The Crime of Punishment Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well … Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Making Sense of Rules Being given absolute rules circumvents the learning process, and later when they need to adapt to novel situations, leaves the learner in the lurch, stranded without the knowledge of how to devise new strategies. They only have a limited number of tools in their social toolbox, and little knowledge of how to build new kinds of tools. If we go telling children what to do for their entire lives, then we shouldn’t wonder that they become young adults without the ability to think for themselves and to be responsible without someone monitoring their actions.

Being Unruly People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos. This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.

A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.

Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Read the rest of this entry »

Making Sense of Rules

Harry Wormwood to his daughter Matilda, from the movie based on Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda:
“I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

To make sense of something, to understand how it works, what is significant about it in your own experience, in short, to create a meaningful gestalt, requires that one be able to manipulate it physically, to stretch it, pull it, push it, turn it upside-down, use it in different ways and then compare and contrast the results. This is the active process of learning.

Making sense of the social world and its often unstated rules requires that one be able to do original research in the nature of it, just as one does with the physics of the universe. The problem however, especially for our autistic/Asperger’s students, is that the social world is not nearly so consistent as is the physical world or the digital world. You mess around with mechanical objects or video games, and the responses will consistently fall within the same parameters. Likewise, the ecology of the biological world is more complex, but still rather straightforward.

However, human social systems are rife with “fuzzy logic”. The social sciences are seen as comparatively “soft” sciences because sorting out the variables and interpreting the results is so damn tricky. Given such complexity and unpredictability, it’s no wonder that autistics, whose social radar is less acute, often prefer to stick with the natural sciences, or view themselves as researchers of human beings.

People not only need worlds that they can make sense of; they also need worlds that meet their needs. The needs of children and students are somewhat different than those of adults. They are still very much in the process of building understandings of the social world and of their places in them. They need to be able to create systems that are functional and adaptable, and they need to find a place in society that allows them to continue to grow as individuals, that draws upon their personal strengths and works with their individual weaknesses, and that respects the parts they will have to play throughout their lives.

Rigid, unyielding rules systems built upon the premise that the child or student is a bad person, who needs to be controlled, and always told what to do, cannot effectively provide that.

There’s a kind of physics in social relationships: push on someone, and they will push back with that familiar “equal and opposite reaction”. No one likes feeling controlled, like a helpless pawn in some chess game. Everyone wants to feel that they have some measure of say and control in how they get their needs met – this is what empowerment and respect is about.

Empowering others is scary for some people because it requires relinquishing some of their control. Or rather, empowering others is about giving them opportunity, the right tools, and letting them have responsibility. The whole crazy part about the current scenario at the JRC is the people in control complain that they “have” to use force (pain and other punishments and rewards) because the students would otherwise be irresponsible.

This isn’t about a child “testing authority” as feared by disciplinarians; it’s about the student being able to try things out, practice, reflect, discuss, acquire new skills, and practice some more. Being given absolute rules circumvents the learning process, and later when they need to adapt to novel situations, leaves the learner in the lurch, stranded without the knowledge of how to devise new strategies. They only have a limited number of tools in their social toolbox, and little knowledge of how to build new kinds of tools. If we go telling children what to do for their entire lives, then we shouldn’t wonder that they become young adults without the ability to think for themselves and to be responsible without someone monitoring their actions.

How do children learn to be responsible? It takes practice. If you want people to know how to be inner-directed, moral, responsible people, then they need the opportunities to learn how, and they need adults to share their wisdom and their power and to help them along the way.

Being Unruly

On Kevin’s blog, a former employee of the Judge Rotenberg Center, “kml”, described how one autistic student was subjected to electric shocks via GED because he would greet people arriving at the classroom by saying, “Hello”.  (The rationale being that the student’s actions were “disruptive”.)

Given that some parents spend a lot of time helping their autistic children develop verbal and social skills, this is especially heart-wrenching.

An authoritative, punitive approach doesn’t teach the student/child how to identify the true causes of their problems, and then find different ways of solving them.  Instead, it teaches one to (1) not get caught, and (2) “might makes right” (where “right” in this case is more about privilege and power than about correctness).

This kind of framework keeps behaviour regulation extrinsic – the child relies upon others – instead of intrinsic.  Even after the child has internalized the “you are a bad person” message and the “you deserve this” message, they still end up seeking approval from others for their good actions.  The process is still ultimately extrinsic.  All of this creates a state of perpetual rebelliousness and/or insecurity.  There’s no real moral growth.

Even when the teachers dragoon other students into the system as underlings, no one is really empowered to truly help themselves.  This is not how we teach respect.  Respect is earned, not demanded by authority.  Being respected and being controlling rarely happen simultaneously.

Secondly, such a system invariably puts the focus on what the rules are, rather than why we do what we do.  One has to be able to practice and to reflect upon how ideas work in different circumstances, in order to develop the internal moral framework that is necessary for maturity. Being able to generalise concepts across different circumstances is sometimes challenging for our autistic/Asperger’s children, and one can’t develop that if they are always being told what to do.

If parents and teachers are finding that their children and students are being “little lawyers”, then they should seek to find what in the system is making everyone so anxious that every decision needs questioning.  Because in truth, it is the system that is being questioned, more so than the authority!  Re-asserting one’s authority doesn’t resolve that, it just adds more friction.

We want a system that enables us to create plans for coöperating with and helping others, rather than focusing on punishments and rewards.  The problem with relying upon punishments and rewards is that they don’t help create the respect, responsibility and relationships for creating community that are our ultimate goals.

People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos.  This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.

When you’re hostile and suspicious, everything looks like dissent, everything looks like challenge, and everything looks like rebellion.

Even saying, “Hello”.

I Didn’t Ask For That

“Boy, you’re asking for it!” The teen towers over me despite being a stair lower, and the fierce glower makes me flinch away, which moment is my undoing. The world spins as I am elbowed away, lurching drastically over the railing at the vertiginous two-story drop, then my footing slips and I am skidding down steps to crash on the midway landing. The herd of students storms past me, an impediment to their passage between classes. I didn’t ask for that, I protest silently as I taste blood, still unsure of what had precipitated the swiftly violent interaction in the first place.

“Well, if you’re going to choose to be irresponsible and leave your math book at school every day, then you’ve just made the decision to not have any reading time tonight,” declares my mother righteously. I meant to bring my algebra book home, really. I’m not trying to avoid the homework at all. I didn’t “choose” to forget my math book again. Nor am I deciding to forgo my favourite leisure activity. Not at all. In fact, I don’t remember being a part of any of that “decision” process whatsoever. I didn’t ask for that.

My graduate school advisor leans back in his desk chair and announces, “I need to know what your decision is.” I’m still numbly trying to absorb what-all his two page letter means. A few months earlier after my first research proposal meeting, I had described some of my learning difficulties to my committee members, and each had said they would help. But now the results of such difficulties are being flung back at me, described herein as deficiencies. He is informing me that I am being removed from a research Master’s degree. Decision? I have choices? Apparently so. “I don’t make snap decisions about important things,” I hedge, mostly because my brain’s freezing in shock at this unexpected turn of events. The hourly bell jangles out in the hallway, making me wince as usual, which in turn produces a twitch of annoyance in him at my “over-reaction”. “Well, let me know what you want,” he says by way of dismissal. After a few re-reads, the “decision” proves to be rather a dilemma between outright quitting the program (not mentioned in his letter, but implied) or taking a terminal degree. Which one did I “want”? I didn’t ask for that.

There is a seriously heavy, late-summer storm brewing outside, and the air is damp and prickly. I finished the daily reading lesson ten minutes ago and am squirming hyperactively around in my seat with nothing to do. My tights itch, and my dress sashes have come undone again, causing the calico to billow ticklishly. I’m six years old and in second grade, and have not yet learned how to fidget acceptably; “good sitting”, like “good penmanship”, is something that I struggle to achieve. I’m wobbling on my chair from sitting on an ankle, and leaned over sideways across my desktop with one arm rocking back and forth off the side, staring distractedly out the classroom window. Cumulus clouds are piling up into tumultuous towers and flattening at the top into an impressively green-grey anvil. An actinic far-violet flash of lightning rips from one end of the cloud to another, and impulse wins out again – I am plastered to the window to see more. “Andrea! Sit down in your chair.” The teacher trots me back to my assigned place, and no sooner than I get my behind on the chair seat, she clamps my shoulders to the chair back to emphasize how I am supposed to sit. “You really want to miss recess, don’t you? It’s reading time. You need to stay in and read your assignment.” But I’d already read the stupid story … spending half an hour more confined to my chair and reading it all over again, thus losing out my only opportunity to vent some energy and to go spinning on the playground carousel, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t ask for that.

Decisions? Choices? Hardly.

Choices are between things you want, or at least will accept. Situations like these aren’t even “forced choices”. Even the phrase “forced choices” is part of the problem. (A forced choice should really mean a situation more like, “Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to coconut or fudge ripple; the ice cream store closes in five minutes, so you need to decide now.”) It still implies volition upon the part of the person.

Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed.

Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self. The consequences are really decided by someone else, and the language is a distractor meant to bamboozle everyone. It’s doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation.

It’s also about obedience deceptively, attractively, cloaked as “responsibility”. If you’re not being submissive to someone else’s wishes, then you’re “choosing” to be irresponsible even if there is no malicious intent. The punishment chosen for the transgression is tagged as self-selected and self-imposed, when it’s anything but.

If you “choose” to have difficulties or misbehave, then you’ve “decided” to be punished by losing privileges like a much-needed recess, or having major plans derailed, (or if you’re a student at JRC, missing some of your daily food ration or getting zapped with electric shocks) or –

I didn’t ask for that.


They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

~ R.D. Laing, Knots

Oh, here we go again. I assert negative opinions about bad conditions, and people who don't like that opinion will assert that the problem is neither the bad conditions nor the bad conduct found there, but rather that:

I'm crazy.

"Be happy in your delusion" says "ann" on Kevin's blogpost on the JRC.

Ad Hominem attacks are always popular for dismissing the validity of people's arguments. That particular blogpost is an exciting thread for fallacy-spotting; there's also the related Tu Quoque, the good ol' Straw Man argument, retreating to Appeal to Common Practice to defend the use of pain-aversives, and in the above example, Appeal to Ridicule. Let's make trading cards and collect 'em all! But I digress.

It's not surprising to see this kind of reaction from people who are working at or have worked at places like the JRC. Such blanket rejection of the content or validity of someone's opinions by declaring them to be delusional very much reflects the whole power paradigm of such places.

Ditto the assertions that no one can know what is appropriate for the students in those places, unless they've actually seen the students to appreciate that somehow those students are worse than any others elsewhere, and that they both need and deserve electroshock punishment.

There's a whole recursive sequence of irrational statements and assertions that create this kind of entrenched mindset. It is, unfortunately, found in a great many wretched places, most of which present themselves as being good, helpful places for troubled people, such as psychiatric institutions.

I'm in charge. I know what's good for you. I'm responsible. You don't know what's best for you. If you disagree then you don't know what's going on. I know how things really are. If you disagree then you don't know how things really are. You must be delusional. No one will take what you say seriously. You have to accept that what we tell you is really real. Until you do, you're really just crazy.

Crazy people deserve what is being done to them. That's why you're here, after all; you're crazy. You're not capable of leaving until you become a good, sane person. Sane means you believe what we tell you is real. Good means you accept that you are wrong and are crazy.

If you were okay you wouldn't be here. You're here because you're not okay. You should be thankful that we're doing this for you. You would understand why this is necessary if you weren't delusional. Denying your problems just shows how bad you are.

Don't you go being smart! I never said we'd let you go if you told us what we wanted to hear. You're delusional. You don’t understand what’s going on. You're dangerous when you get delusional. We have to manage your behaviour because you're incapable.

Quit confusing people with nonsense stories. You need to apologise for bothering them! We can't let you talk to them any more because you've chosen to misbehave.You're just asking for it; now you have to face the consequences of your actions. This is for your own good––

Et cetera, ad nauseum. It's the kind of thing that ties one's brain up into horrid tangles. Some chilling details of such situations are described by a survivor on Ballastexistenz blog.

Schools are sometimes like this, too, as are some workplaces. These others are the sorts of situations that more people can relate to personally. The names and the details vary, but not nearly enough. The whole rationale is much the same.

Substitute "bad" for "crazy" if the student or employee complains about the system.

Or, substitute "lying" if the student or employee complains about the people there.

The whole purpose of this is to keep the people manageable by convincing them that they can't understand what is really going on, and that their own personal realities cannot be valid. Keeping people confused by deluding them as to what they are really experiencing will preoccupy them, and keep them from getting uppity. Learned helplessness prevents them from taking effective action.

If nothing else, one very, very important thing I have learned over the years is that,
When something seems confusing, it means that we don't have the whole story, and that we need more information.

All these knots of dismissal, denial and denigration are disabling. They are designed to snare one in traps, recursively wandering about in a standstill, and getting nowhere. They are meant to stifle enquiry.

Pain is always an alert of danger to an organism, be the pain physical or mental. That horrid, familiar sensation of wading through confusion should not freeze us, but rather send out warning klaxons:

WARNING! Obfuscation and deception.

Time to gear up in your Personal Protection Equipment. Grab the shovels and waders and engage the Bullshitometers, because it's gonna get deep …

The Plural of Testimonial is not __________.

Remember when you were a young school child and your class had the exciting event of a visiting speaker to the classroom? Later on after the presentation, your teacher then had the opportunity to use that event as the basis for an exercise on How To Write A Letter. Chances are the class’ letters went something like this:

Dear Mr Visitor,
Thank you for coming to our class to talk about blah.
It was very interesting.
Now we know lots of blah-blah-blah.
Yours truly,
A. Student*

Having been the adult recipient of such, I can vouch that there’s a not-so amazing consistency in the form that these letters take, and I’m not referring to the construction paper covers. Whenever a number of people are invited to write a document, and their efforts are in direct response to a series of questions, there is going to be a formulaic quality to the answers.

Requesting feedback on specific services in itself is not necessarily a biased thing; for example, when the employing colleges or inviting organisations ask the attendees for evaluations of instructors or guest speakers, there are specific factors about the presentation that are being assessed.

However, when eliciting responses one has to be careful to not slant the wording of the questions so the responses are not biased. Similarly, verbal requests for impromptu responses or exit surveys must likewise be worded carefully to prevent coaching.

It’s very rare that every client or conference attendee will fill out an evaluation form; the office responsible for creating evaluation summaries has to realize that such volunteers are going to be somewhat self-selecting, if for no other reason than the fact that those were the people who weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere else. On the other hand, a true evaluation has to look at all the all the responses returned. A cherry-picked group is never going to be representative of the entire cohort.

When looking at any kind of response document, there are shadows behind the discourse that merit critical analysis. These include the unwritten assumptions of the author, such as who they considered to be their audience, what they presume the audience to know, and what kinds of details were deemed necessary to include to support the statements given.

What is not included is also equally important. Unless the document is an expository theme or persuasive essay, there are beliefs about social reality that are built in the framework of the discourse and are not explicitly mentioned.

These beliefs are assumed to be mutually held and self-evident. (You know, the sorts of assertions that when challenged, provoke a, “Well of course we had to …” response.) Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these world-views, because they are so encompassing, not unlike like fish being unaware that water is “wet”.

I don’t claim to be a forensic linguist, but as an author and behavioural observer, the following curiosities from the Judge Rothenberg Center’s Web site (the 18 testimonial letters and excerpted quotes all referred to therein as “comments” by JRC parents) certainly caught my attention.

Like the children’s thank-you letters, there’s a formulaic quality to them. It shows through in the sentence structure and word choices. Theoretically it’s possible that those letters represent the way the parents always compose missives; we naturally lack known writing samples for comparison. And yet … one gets the impression that there are leading questions that yield repeated patterns of content.

Our child has X and did YYY. No place else helped him.
JRC uses the “GED” skin shock device.
Now he is controllable. The “GED” is the answer!
He has been there for years. We are very happy.

Okay, that’s a trifle simplistic; the testimonials that are letters are longer. My example is a distillation of quotes.

On the site, you have probably seen the term "statistically improbable phrases", which refers to those constructions and idioms specific to the particular book being described. They are phrases that jump out of the text because they’re not the sorts of things commonly found in writing.

In this kind of critical analysis, if a writer inserts a few "twenty-dollar words" when the rest of the letter is just "fifty-cent words", they stand out. They are statistically improbable phrases, or compositional outliers. There will always be some terms that people will just pick up from interactions with staff (such as using the term “GED”). But in verbal and written communication most lay people don't go around using jargon specific to a particular discipline or industry. When those "twenty-dollar words" show up, well, one gets the impression that there likely are leading questions or requests guiding the effort. A prime example of this would be the Shields letter, which is composed of a series of declarative sentences, but also includes the expanded technical phrase: “GED” skin shock device.

Surprisingly, JRC is not just a temporary location for controlling children with behaviour problems; it’s also an institution for lifetime confinement. Some of the inmates have been there for over a decade, at least as reckoned by the dates of their parents’ letters.

“We are the parents of a 35 yr. old autistic adult. He has been in this program since he was 19.” (Shields)
A 32-year old autistic adult has been in this place under the GED aversive system for over ten years. (Soucy)
Yet another person has been there for eleven years, also past legal majority. (Slaff)

Another parent describes their child as benefiting from the GED (or rather, “GED” is the typed word repeatedly pasted over the handwritten note), because “it helps her to eat better, exercise better, learn better, socialize better, and enjoy life better”. ( Bognar) Personally I have to wonder how being the recipient of repeated electric shock punishment enables one to “enjoy life better”.

Obviously, JRC feels the need to assert and validate the necessity for using the “GED” skin shock device; there are people such as myself who strongly disagree with the necessity and efficacy of using punishment. Lots of companies use testimonial letters to show off their satisfied customers. But this isn’t about carpet cleaning. This is about people trying to convince us that systematic, repeated punishment under inescapable conditions, i.e. torture, is both beneficial and necessary.

Now, what’s one of our favourite fallacy flatteners? The plural of anecdote is not data. Or in this case, the plural of testimonial is not validation.


* Not to be confused with the author of Student’s t-distribution, who was actually Mr W. S. Gosset, a chemist at Guinness Breweries (statistics classes aren’t completely dull!)

The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.