Court overturns FDA ban on electric shocks in schools

In a searing setback for the disability rights movement, a federal appeals court has overturned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ban on electric shock devices for students with mental disabilities.

The case centered around the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts, a residential school for young people with developmental disabilities, emotional disorders, and autism. JRC is the only school in the country that employs a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) to control aversive behavior in students. The practice has been deemed “torture” by the United Nations and was formally banned by the FDA in 2020.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FDA lacks authority to ban the use of electric shocks on intellectually disabled people. A ban on GED constitutes interference with the practice of medicine, the court said. Such matters are up to the states to regulate. The ruling means JRC can continue to shock its residents into submission.

JRC praised the decision.

“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.

JRC insists GED has been a life-saving treatment for some of its students, many of whom are prone to acts of self-harm. But former residents have alleged the school uses GED for innocuous transgressions as well, including mild disobedience and harmless self-stimulatory behaviors that some autistic people use to self-regulate.

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