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."
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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.
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