12/21/2007 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Shock School Replicates Shocking Obedience Experiment

What does it take to shut down an abusive school? Perhaps the fact that it has just replicated an experiment notorious both for being ethically problematic and showing how easy it is to get normal people to "just follow orders" to hurt others?

Picture this scenario, as described by the Boston Globe and in a report [pdf] from the state of Massachusetts.

At 2AM, a prank caller dials up a school known for its use of punitive electric shocks on autistic children and others with behavior disorders. He singles out three emotionally disturbed boys, ordering that they immediately be given many more shocks than their "treatment plans" allow. He cites particular misbehavior at a particular time as the reason for this punishment.

The staff has never been told to do this before. They did not check with their superiors to see whether the order was legitimate; in fact, they apparently assumed they were being tested for their compliance. Neither staff nor other inmates had seen or heard anything about any incidents at the time alleged by the caller to justify the punishment.

Nonetheless, they "followed orders," shocking two of the boys, first in their beds, later in a "recreation room" in restraints. One complained that he felt like he was "about to have a stroke," yet no medical attention was sought.

This went on for two hours while the rest of the kids nearly riot, claiming that the order must be a hoax. One boy gets 29 shocks; the other 77. He later has to be hospitalized for second-degree burns as a result. Before the last boy can be given the shocks, the staff finally work out that something is wrong.

As it turns out, the prankster was a former resident of the program, which is known as the Judge Rotenberg Center and located in Massachusetts. The incident occurred in August.

The staff involved were fired, the program says procedures have been changed, the state report filed.

But no one has noted that the school's procedures led to a real-life reproduction of the famous Milgram experiment -- in which 65% of subjects rapidly complied with orders to shock others, even when they thought their victim was experiencing a heart attack and had to flip a switch labeled "danger severe shock."

In that case, the "victims" were actually actors, no real harm was done to them-- and a great ethical controversy ensued over the treatment of subjects, who had been deceived by experimenters about the nature of the research. Many psychologists worried that distress over learning that you might have been a "good German" in a situation like the Holocaust could be irreparable.

Here, however, poorly-trained staff inflicted serious and genuine emotional and physical pain on emotionally disordered children -- at the prompt of an anonymous caller, and outside an experimental setting!

If such an incident could happen, there can be no legitimate argument that Rotenberg is a decent "treatment" program, which only uses shocks as part of a careful behavioral plan. All institutions which incarcerate vulnerable people run the risk of abuse -- this risk is elevated exponentially when the program has a philosophy that suggests that pain is helpful to patients and punishment is treatment.

If the state won't shutter the school on the basis of this clear violation of human rights and clear evidence that the program is not what it claims to be, what will it take before they finally pull the plug?