Restraint in the Shadows

Controversial psychologist found working at special ed schools | EdSource
Building

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today

The Tobinworld II special education school on Country Hills Drive in Antioch.

Controversial psychologist found working at special ed schools

Published August 27, 2015

By Jane Meredith Adams

He is among the nation’s leading believers in “aversive therapy,” in which students with behavior disorders are pinched, deprived of food and shocked with electricity to control their behavior. For more than 30 years, state attorneys general, U.S. congressmen and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture have alleged his methods violate the health, safety and educational rights of children with disabilities.

Now Matthew Israel has been tripped up by investigators at the California Department of Education for a seeming technicality: failing to submit school-employment paperwork.

Prompted by a citizen complaint, state investigators found that Israel is working as a behavior analyst or administrator for two Antioch special education schools run by his wife, Judy Weber-Israel, without being listed on the schools’ applications for state certification, as required by the California Education Code. Nor were the school districts that send students to the schools – including Antioch Unified, Oakland Unified, River Delta Unified and Mt. Diablo Unified – notified that Israel had been added to the roster of licensed staff, as required by the Education Code.

Upon closer inspection, investigators found that the schools, known as Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III, did not have records that proved Israel had cleared a U.S. Department of Justice criminal background check, held a valid license or credential or passed a tuberculosis test, as required by the Education Code.

The state investigation concluded that Matthew Israel is designing behavioral intervention plans and “is not qualified to do so.”

As a result of these failures, effective Aug. 24, the California Department of Education has suspended the certification of Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III, a status that prohibits the schools from accepting new referrals from school districts. The schools may continue to operate with their current students and the state has established a series of deadlines, starting with Sept. 16 and ending Dec. 31, for them to address noncompliance issues before their certification status is reconsidered.

Israel, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard as well as a J.D. from Harvard Law School, was licensed in California as a psychologist in 1978, but his license expired in 1987. His job duties at Tobinworld II included designing special education behavioral intervention plans, which are strategies to encourage students to act appropriately. State regulations specify that such plans must be designed by staff members who hold a valid license to practice psychology or a related specialty, an appropriate teaching credential, or a master’s degree in psychology or other relevant fields. Tobinworld II did not provide evidence that Israel met any of those criteria, according to the investigation.

The investigation concluded that Israel is designing behavioral intervention plans and “is not qualified to do so,” which the report called potential grounds for suspending or revoking the school’s certification.

Martin Orlick, an attorney for Tobinworld, a Glendale-based nonprofit organization that operates the two Antioch schools as well as a special education school in Glendale, known as Tobinworld, said the schools were investigating the state’s findings. “Naturally, we have a dispute about the claims,” Orlick said.

Asked if Israel would be continuing to work for Tobinworld, Orlick said, “Dr. Israel does not work at the schools. He is an independent consultant who has been working on projects from time to time.”

The state immediately ordered Tobinworld II to submit all behavior intervention plans created by Israel, from the 2014-15 school year through the present, to school districts to be reviewed by each student’s special education team. Israel has been barred from Tobinworld II until he provides a tuberculosis test clearance, and until the school proves it has procedures in place to prevent the hiring of employees before they obtain criminal background clearance, evidence of valid licenses or credentials, and tuberculosis test results, according to the investigation report. The report stated that the schools had a pattern of hiring staff whose criminal clearances and tuberculosis tests were far out of date. In addition, the report said the schools employed behavior specialists with expired certifications.

Aversive behavior-control techniques, which are listed in Education Code Section 56521.2 as methods that include causing students physical pain or depriving them of food, water or access to bathroom facilities, are not allowed in California special education. The state investigations did not address what behavior-control methods Israel was using at the school. Investigators interviewed staff and students at Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III and said they gave “no indication” that there was “a health, safety or any other issue regarding the well-being of students,” according to the report.

Israel has been working for Tobinworld II as a behavior analyst, a consultant for autistic student services and the creator of behavior intervention plans since at least 2013, according to the investigation reports. For Tobinworld III, he has been working as an administrator since 2013, the reports said.

“It’s a nightmare that he’s out there,” said Barbara Trader, executive director of TASH, a national disability rights advocacy group, referring to Israel’s involvement with Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III. “This man has a history of doing absolutely the wrong thing. He’s been the major proponent of procedures that deliver pain through electric shock. Nobody else does that.”

Tobinworld has long maintained it has no official relationship with Israel, although the school is the offshoot of the Behavior Research Institute of California, located in Northridge, which was co-founded in 1977 by Israel and Weber, who were not married at the time. Israel started the school as a Los Angeles-area branch of his first school, the Behavior Research Institute, in Rhode Island.

In 1982, an investigation of the Behavior Research Institute of California by then-California Attorney General George Deukmejian found that teenagers and adults with autism were handcuffed to chairs, sprayed with a garden hose, refused access to a bathroom and denied food. Residents were pinched to the point of screaming and forced to take part in “behavior rehearsal lessons” where they were told to destroy property and then were squirted with water as punishment for their actions, according to the investigation. In 1981, a 14-year-old boy died while being restrained in bed.

That investigation led to a settlement in which the Behavior Research Institute of California agreed not to use aversive therapy. According to a 1986 Los Angeles Times story, California officials banned Israel from entering the Behavior Research Institute of California. Weber took over the administration of the institute, and after a few years she renamed it Tobinworld.

In the meantime, Israel moved his Behavior Research Institute from Rhode Island to Massachusetts and eventually changed its name to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, now located in Canton, Mass. Disability advocates say the center is the only institution in the nation that uses electronic skin-shocks to control student behavior.

The use of the shocks at the center has been investigated by officials in New York and Massachusetts for possible violations of health and safety codes and the educational rights of disabled students. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the use of electronic skin-shocks at the Rotenberg center is ongoing. In 2013, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture found that students who were subjected to severe electrical skin-shocks at the Rotenberg center had their rights violated under the U.N. Convention on Torture.

His methods do have supporters. Groups of Massachusetts parents have kept the Rotenberg center from being closed by the state by arguing that their children are engaged in violent, self-abusive behavior, such as self-hitting, and that the skin-shocks have kept that behavior under control.

In 2011, Israel was indicted by a grand jury in a Massachusetts criminal case for allegedly ordering the destruction of a video recording of two students at the Rotenberg center being repeatedly shocked while restrained over three hours. The incident was the result of a prank phone call in which a person pretending to be a supervisor ordered staff to wake up the students and shock them because they had misbehaved during the day.

“We’re talking about kids who the sole reason they are placed there is for a behavioral program, and yet they do not have qualified people there,” said Maggie Roberts of Disability Rights California.

In a plea agreement with the Massachusetts attorney general, Israel resigned as executive director of the center and was placed on probation for five years. His involvement with the Antioch schools appears to have begun a few years afterwards, investigators found.

In unannounced visits to Tobinworld II and III on Jan. 16 and 17,  investigators also found that the schools were employing behavioral analysts with expired certifications and teachers without the required credentials to teach students with certain disabilities. The school also failed to comply with state regulations that require behavior plan reviews after staff members have physically restrained students or isolated them in rooms they cannot leave.

Maggie Roberts, associate managing attorney of Disability Rights California, a state watchdog organization, called the state findings “serious” and said they were enough to warrant the revocation of the schools’ certification.

“This is a vulnerable population,” Roberts said. “We’re talking about kids who the sole reason they are placed there is for a behavioral program, and yet they do not have qualified people there.”

The three Tobinworld schools serve a total of 440 students with autism, emotional disturbances, developmental disabilities and learning disabilities, according to income tax statements that nonprofits are required to file. Weber-Israel is executive director of Tobinworld and the schools are named after Weber’s son Tobin, who has autism.

Tobinworld reported $14.7 million in revenues in 2013, the most recent data available, and receives district, state and federal money to serve special education students school districts are unable to accommodate. According to the state investigation, Tobinworld is currently looking to expand and is seeking certification for three proposed schools whose locations were not identified – A&T Preschool Academy, KT Academy and DVT Academy.


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  1. Rick Rayfield 7 months ago7 months ago

    Every time you say Matt Israel uses aversive methods to control children's behavior you are hiding an important truth of fact. Dr Israel only uses aversives to decrease self-injurious behavior. His behavioral interventions are always over 90% positive reinforcement to teach appropriate and healthy behavior. We do not know why headbanging on concrete, hair pulling, skin damage, and other self-injury are done in the most severe cases of spectrum. No one … Read More

    Every time you say Matt Israel uses aversive methods to control children’s behavior you are hiding an important truth of fact. Dr Israel only uses aversives to decrease self-injurious behavior. His behavioral interventions are always over 90% positive reinforcement to teach appropriate and healthy behavior. We do not know why headbanging on concrete, hair pulling, skin damage, and other self-injury are done in the most severe cases of spectrum. No one has shown a way to stop these self-injuries which threaten all progress as well as life itself, except stopping the self-injurious behavior with aversive methods.

    Replies

    • Jane Meredith Adams 7 months ago7 months ago

      Hi Rick. The use of pain to control students with disabilities is controversial, as you know. While the intent behind this practice may have been to stop students from banging their heads, many investigations, noted in the story above, have found widespread misuse of pain-infliction and question its efficacy even if it is not misused. A video from Israel's Judge Rotenberg Center, shown in a court hearing in Massachusetts, shows a student being subjected to … Read More

      Hi Rick. The use of pain to control students with disabilities is controversial, as you know. While the intent behind this practice may have been to stop students from banging their heads, many investigations, noted in the story above, have found widespread misuse of pain-infliction and question its efficacy even if it is not misused. A video from Israel’s Judge Rotenberg Center, shown in a court hearing in Massachusetts, shows a student being subjected to multiple electric shocks allegedly for not taking off his coat. https://youtu.be/ZtRGQRtwh2U I see from your website that you consulted with Matt Israel on how to use pain or other averse actions in response to self-injurious behavior.

  2. MedicineMujer 8 months ago8 months ago

    I just saw on FB a very disturbing video that says it was taken at Tobin World in Antioch. In the video, children are being abused.

  3. Susan Rocha 8 months ago8 months ago

    These situations are NOT new. Years ago in the 1990's many staff and the principal were fired from Tobinworld. Some staff were restraining students illegally and other stuff was going on. Then an employee of LAUSD was hired to take over. I thought maybe things changed with the change in staff, but I guess not. Parents are not allowed to stop in any time they … Read More

    These situations are NOT new. Years ago in the 1990’s many staff and the principal were fired from Tobinworld. Some staff were restraining students illegally and other stuff was going on. Then an employee of LAUSD was hired to take over. I thought maybe things changed with the change in staff, but I guess not. Parents are not allowed to stop in any time they want to check to see what is going on in the classroom or the school. That should change.

  4. Debra Fazio 8 months ago8 months ago

    By the way, thank you for this article. I am a parent of a special needs child in the Bay Area and I hope that I can take this information and share it with as many parents as I can in the hopes that we can address this issue with a solution,starting with having cameras in classrooms

  5. Derrick Jeffries 12 months ago12 months ago

    This is a most excellent article. What Dave Jersey mentions about ABAI is also accurate and therefore of significant concern to all people, especially those living with Autism, who are often the victims of aversives, restraints and seclusions. People need to be aware of the link between Judy Weber and Matthew Israel, that runs far deeper than marriage. As long as Weber is involved in working with people with special needs Matt Israel will … Read More

    This is a most excellent article. What Dave Jersey mentions about ABAI is also accurate and therefore of significant concern to all people, especially those living with Autism, who are often the victims of aversives, restraints and seclusions.

    People need to be aware of the link between Judy Weber and Matthew Israel, that runs far deeper than marriage. As long as Weber is involved in working with people with special needs Matt Israel will always be a portentous presence lurking in the background. Those of his ilk will always prey on the most vulnerable population. His tendrils will continue to probe for victims from his lair of darkness until the coming of the Reaper. Then it will be his turn…

  6. Rosella A. Alm-Ahearn 12 months ago12 months ago

    I hoped that this ancient ogre died years ago. I am sorry that he is still living. He is no doubt afraid of dying and seeing the Gates of Hell open up for him. (I wish it was true, but as a non-believer, I'm sorry to say I don't think so.) My son brushed against the fringe of this kind of "behavior control" many years ago with a study by Ivar … Read More

    I hoped that this ancient ogre died years ago. I am sorry that he is still living. He is no doubt afraid of dying and seeing the Gates of Hell open up for him. (I wish it was true, but as a non-believer, I’m sorry to say I don’t think so.) My son brushed against the fringe of this kind of “behavior control” many years ago with a study by Ivar Lovaas at UCLA, but our family left before our boy was hurt.

  7. Dave Jersey 12 months ago12 months ago

    Dear Jane, You have written a tremendously fine investigative report on the Israels. For your information, and as a request, please add to your short list of their offical supporters, the entire body of the 12,000 member Applied Behavior Analysis network, the Association for Behavior Analysis International which "approves" the Judge Rotenberg Center school of shoch "torture," Matthew Israel's baby, as "aligned" with the association's "mission." Please see the source documentation and description of the horrifically … Read More

    Dear Jane,

    You have written a tremendously fine investigative report on the Israels.

    For your information, and as a request, please add to your short list of their offical supporters, the entire body of the 12,000 member Applied Behavior Analysis network, the Association for Behavior Analysis International which “approves” the Judge Rotenberg Center school of shoch “torture,” Matthew Israel’s baby, as “aligned” with the association’s “mission.”

    Please see the source documentation and description of the horrifically unconscionable support of shock by this unethical network at the link to my blog provided here with this comment.

    Replies

    • Jane Meredith Adams 7 months ago7 months ago

      Thanks, Dave. And thank you for the information.
      Jane

  8. Gilda 12 months ago12 months ago

    Stephanie, it breaks my heart that this happened to you. You are correct; he is a sociopath. I am the mother of a young adult with Down syndrome and autism, and I would want to hurt someone who did this to him. This man should be in prison.

  9. Stephanie 1 year ago1 year ago

    Doesn't this sociopath who found a niche in the behavioral psychology field ever worry that one of his ex-student/patients will track him one day and stuck a knife in his back or shoot him. Just wondering because as an autistic adult who suffered abuse as a kid I can tell you we never, never forget who hurt us. He may of made these kids and teens submit through tasering and beating and they may of … Read More

    Doesn’t this sociopath who found a niche in the behavioral psychology field ever worry that one of his ex-student/patients will track him one day and stuck a knife in his back or shoot him. Just wondering because as an autistic adult who suffered abuse as a kid I can tell you we never, never forget who hurt us. He may of made these kids and teens submit through tasering and beating and they may of become obedient and compliant under the dissociation PTSD but there will come a time later in their lives the rage he and others like him is going to come back out, whether its in depression, suicide or violence. It may take years. If the people who had abused me had not died, I dare say, I might of been serving a prison sentence by now

    Replies

    • Greg Miller 12 months ago12 months ago

      Your comment makes good sense in that you would think people who were severely hurt and abused at JRC and by Dr. Israel's methods would rise up against him. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Most of the staff and students who were greatly disturbed by the violence and inhumanity at JRC are so traumatized that they are unwilling to speak out. JRC becomes some big-bad impenetrable barrier to them, and even … Read More

      Your comment makes good sense in that you would think people who were severely hurt and abused at JRC and by Dr. Israel’s methods would rise up against him. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Most of the staff and students who were greatly disturbed by the violence and inhumanity at JRC are so traumatized that they are unwilling to speak out. JRC becomes some big-bad impenetrable barrier to them, and even those who do say they will speak out in the end simply back off when it come to actually speaking out publicly. That has happened time and time again – former staff and students. Imagine seeing a classmate tied up in a restraint chair for hours every day as part of “Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons” so that a staff can “surprise” the student by rushing in with a knife and threatening to jam the knife down the student’s throat while the student is tied up and defenseless. Then when the student is screaming out a bloody scream, someone presses a remote control button and shocks the tied up student. Then every student who drops to the floor, or screams out in fear, or throws down his or her task, or attempts to hold the electrodes off of their own skin, each in turn get shocked for those reactions in fear. And it happened day after day, demonstrating that the students (mostly nonverbal), who were getting shocked for their reactions to the Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons on their classmate in front of them, were incapable of learning not to have those reactions because they would get shocked for those same reactions again and again over months of Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons on their classmate who was tied in front of them. That kind of violence takes a toll on an person who has a soul in that setting, and the staff were not the ones tied to the electrodes. So think of how traumatizing that is for students locked to those devices who could never escape those devices. Wearing the devices themselves can be argued to be negative reinforcement in itself, so that the students can never escape that torture that was physically locked to them. That kind of trauma i the kind that most people simply cannot talk about. And have you seen the video of Andre McCollins tied up on a 4-point board and being shocked over and over again? Imagine 3-4 students each on a separate board being shocked at the same time, 4 shocks for a single behavior! While JRC has publicly denied shocking students multiple times for single behaviors, we now have actual examples of a student recording sheet that shows the truth (search Jennifer Msumba online for her recording sheet / behavioral plan). These “leaders” spend their careers and funds learning from lawyers how to get away the worst of crimes. I’ve witnessed it first hand.