A Massachusetts school can continue using electric shock devices on its students with intellectual disabilities after the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the controversial practice last week.
The judges ruled 2-1 in favor of the practice that is still being used at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center in Canton, Massachusetts, and said that “the FDA lacks the statutory authority to ban a medical device for a particular use.”
The center, which cares for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, seems to be the only institution in the United States using shock therapy on its students to correct self-harming and aggressive behavior, according to the FDA. The center believed that the shocks would help modify the behavior of a student.
The FDA said that the electrical stimulation devices presented “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury” in a statement announcing the initial ban of the devices in March 2020. They initially pursued the ban in 2016, not long after a 2002 video of a student being shocked repeatedly for not taking off his jacket made headlines, displaying the student shouting in pain. A civil trial developed out of the instance and later resulted in a settlement in 2012.
Some parents have defended the practice, saying that it has helped their children from causing self-harm.
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Before approving electric shock therapy for his son with autism, Larry Mirro of Island Park, New York, said he researched the treatment and tested the shock on himself, saying it felt like a bee sting. Within six months at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, he noticed a significant change in his son’s behavior, he told The New York Times.
“His behavior totally changed, where he had a life,” Mirro said. “He really had a life.”
Mirro said he had to take Billy out of the center because the New York disability services office would no longer pay for the out-of-state service facility after about 11 years. His son has since gone blind due to self-harm, he told the Times.
Michael Flammia, a lawyer at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, also told the Times that the treatment must be approved for use on specific students who present dangerous behaviors, such as banging their heads to the point of potential blindness, self-biting, breaking their own bones and violently attacking others.
The device, which attaches to an arm or leg of a student and is connected to a backpack, can send jolts of electricity to the skin with a staff member’s remote-control device. The FDA rarely bans devices but can do so when there is a concern for the health of the public, as expressed in their statement.
According to the FDA, they’ve only banned two other medical devices: Prosthetic hair fibers and powdered surgeon’s gloves and examination gloves. The electric stimulation device is considered the third.
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Parents Association released a statement soon after the court overturned the ban, supporting their decision.
“We have and will continue to fight to keep our loved ones safe and alive and to retain access to this life-saving treatment of last resort,” the association said in the statement. “There is no other treatment for our loved ones, and we will not stand by as they are mechanically or chemically restrained.”