Special-education schools under fire

Administrators at two special-education schools in Antioch are in the hot seat, after a state probe over mishandled documentation revealed the services of a notorious and unlicensed shock-therapy advocate had been improperly solicited for as long as two years, among other ambiguities.

Inspectors from the California Department of Education (CDE) recently completed a months-long investigation into Tobinworld II and Tobinworld III, following a parent complaint filed last year. A mother accused staff of abusing her 7-year-old, disabled son. Multiple issues were subsequently found at the schools, which are part of a larger, nonprofit organization based in southern California, pertaining to paperwork, background-check processes and records that amounted to a failure of state standards, according to the findings. The controversy most notably includes the participation and possible under-the-table employment of Dr. Matthew Israel. The doctor is known for using widely-criticized, shock-therapy methods to control the behavior of autistic students. He also happens to be the husband of Tobinworld’s founder, Judy Weber.

The reports indicate that Israel may have helped to put together behavioral-intervention plans for students at the Antioch campuses, even though a license he held to practice psychology expired in 1987. Since the revelations, the schools have been barred from accepting new students at the two locations effective Aug. 24, and are required to implement corrective actions by Sept. 16. Schooling for those already enrolled, about 150 students in all from multiple K-12 districts, has been allowed to continue uninterrupted.

“We want to make sure that all questions are answered,” said Dr. Donald Gill, the superintendent of the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD), which students from the county to Tobinworld, paying more than $27,000 for each of them. “I’ve been assured everything is being taken care of and that all requests for information are being submitted to the CDE. Tobinworld is an outside agency and we have to rely upon their expertise to review the documents themselves and come up with the correct response.”

Officials from the Brentwood and Oakley union school districts, who also contract with the organization when students need services not available in their communities, confirmed they are monitoring the situation, although they are not involved in the investigation process. The Contra Costa County Office of Education chose not to comment, saying only that the matter is for AUSD and the other districts to resolve at this time.

Israel is the former director of a school he founded more than 40 years ago, the Judge Rotenberg Center, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. At this school, he pioneered electrode-shock methods and employed them on autistic students engaging in behavior deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

In 2011, court records show he was forced to resign in a deferred prosecution agreement after being charged with obstruction of justice, a case that stemmed from a 2007 incident where two students were mistakenly shocked and evidence of the event was allegedly destroyed. The center remains in operation today and still uses the therapy under different leadership, albeit with continued criticism.

Amidst all this, Tobinworld officials are trying to clarify and explain what they say was actually going on, and are refuting any claims that Israel’s services amounted to employment.

“Dr. Matthew Israel is not, and has not, been an employee of either Tobinworld II or Tobinworld III … he has always been an independent consultant who serves in an unpaid capacity,” said Martin Orlick, the attorney representing both schools. “We are continuing to investigate the claims … but it’s important to note that the school is open for business.”

Orlick said he was not in a position to discuss Israel’s current standing with Tobinworld, but Judy Weber stated at press time that she had been informed by the organization that Israel would no longer be affiliated with the schools and that a state inspection to confirm mandated changes would be taking place shortly.

With or without a salary, the fact that Israel had any sort of say in the administration of Tobinworld at all has left some observers and rights groups alarmed.

“I don’t know what’s been going on at these schools, but consulting with someone who has this kind of a background (is) very troubling,” said Barbara Trader, the executive director of TASH, a nonprofit group committed to advancing the best interests of people with disabilities. “The saddest thing about this is that kids who require this kind of assistance, you can almost depend on the fact that they’ve had bad things happen in their lives … many of them are trauma survivors. Only top-quality professionals should be working with vulnerable children in these positions.”

Tobinworld was originally founded in 1977 in Glendale, near Los Angeles, when Weber says she was moved to help special-needs children because of her own son’s affliction. It later expanded into the Bay Area in 1998, when Tobinworld II was opened. Weber, Israel’s wife, is seeking to calm the concerns of fellow parents who rely on her programs, issuing a statement on her website.

“I helped establish Tobinworld … because, at that time, there were no local schools for autistic children, including my son,” she said. “It gives me great pain to see that more could have been done to keep this situation from happening, and I am steadfast in my commitment to make it right as soon as possible.”