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Boston school under fire for using electric shocks on severely disabled children

An international body entrusted with upholding human rights across the Americas has called for an immediate ban on the controversial use of electric shocks on severely disabled children in a school outside Boston.

The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, is believed to be the only school in the world that routinely inflicts high-powered electric shocks as a form of punishment on vulnerable children and adults. About 47 of its students are currently subjected to the “treatment”, which involves individuals being zapped with electric currents far more powerful than those discharged by stun guns.

Disability rights campaigners have tried for decades to stop the practice, which the school’s administrators call “aversive therapy”. So far the institution has managed to fend off all opposition, arguing that electric shocks are an acceptable way of discouraging harmful habits.

Now the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has issued a rare formal notice known as “precautionary measures” that calls for immediate cessation of the electric shocks.

In a seven-page resolution, the Washington-based panel says that the practice poses a “serious impact on the rights” of the vulnerable children at the school, “particularly on their right to personal integrity which may be subjected to a form of torture”.

The commission cites the work in 2013 of the then UN monitor on torture, Juan Méndez, who found JRC’s electric shock technique was a potential violation of the UN convention against torture and other international laws. It also notes several federal agencies and professional groups have called for a ban on “aversive techniques” on grounds they can cause psychological trauma.

The commission’s intervention was prompted by a petition from a coalition of advocacy groups led by Disability Rights International. DRI’s president, Laurie Ahern, told the Guardian the commission’s new call for a ban added to a growing body of opinion that the electric shocks amounted to a form of torture.

“The idea of using electric shocks to torture children has been recognized as unconscionable around the world – the US government has got to respond to this and put a stop to it,” Ahern said.

JRC responded to the call for a ban from the IACHR by insisting it was based on inaccurate information. “No one from the JRC or the families of clients whose lives have been saved by the treatment were interviewed and there has been no response to multiple invitations to visit the school.”