July 5, 2005
"As of Friday, schools no longer have the upper hand in
deciding whether children should be given Ritalin or other controlled
substances. A new
federal law [re-authorization of Individuals with Disabilities
Act - IDEA] tilts
that power to parents, barring states and schools from keeping students
out of class in cases when parents disagree with a recommendation to
medicate a child."
sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a member of the House
Education Committee, would extend the Child Medication Safety Act to
include psychotropic drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and
"The little-noticed [2001 Minnesota] law states that
schools cannot require parents to submit their children to special
education testing and that Ritalin can be prescribed to children
only after doctors, parents and school professionals explore other
strategies. Sykora said she introduced the bill because parents were
feeling pressured to put their children on Ritalin."
"What it does is prevent teachers from becoming
physicians." [Dr. Karen Effrem, pediatrician and member of
EdWatch Board of Directors.]
New law: Schools can't force meds on kids
Rob Hotakainen and Melissa Lee, Star Tribune Washington Bureau
July 3, 2005
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As a first-grader, Garrett Nash blurted out answers
before his teacher called on him. He tickled a student sitting next to
him and sometimes bolted out of lines. One cold day, he left school
without his winter coat.
Michelle Nash of Blaine thought her son's behavior was typical for a
child adjusting to a full day of classes, but school officials suspected
he had a hyperactivity disorder. They recommended giving him Ritalin, a
stimulant used to treat children with that problem. She
"I just said I'm not going to do it," said Nash, 40. "And
their response was, 'You know, it's against the law for you to deny a
child medication.' "
That's no longer the case.
As of Friday, schools no longer have the upper hand in deciding whether
children should be given Ritalin or other controlled substances.
A new federal law
[Individuals with Disabilities Act - IDEA] tilts that power to
parents, barring states and schools from keeping students out of class in
cases when parents disagree with a recommendation to medicate a
The law is provoking an emotional debate over the proper role of teachers
and other school employees in trying to help children they believe are
troubled. And it is taking effect amid growing concern over the exploding
use of Ritalin, the brand name for methylphenidate. Production of that
drug has nearly doubled in the United States since 2000, according to the
Drug Enforcement Administration.
Medical professionals come down on both sides of the issue.
Lance Clawson, a child psychiatrist from Cabin John, Md., said the new
law could make teachers fearful of communicating legitimate concerns to
parents. Because teachers see so many children every day, they are
best-equipped to identify abnormal behavior, he said.
"If you tie the hands of the schools, they lose the right to
advocate for the child," Clawson said.
But Karen Effrem, a former pediatrician who lives in Plymouth and
who testified before
Congress on the issue two years ago, said that children are often
incorrectly diagnosed. Sometimes, she said, the problem is simply that
they are watching too much television, eating a poor diet or are bored.
She said the legislation does nothing to keep teachers from speaking
"What it does is prevent teachers from becoming physicians,"
she said, adding that "there's a lot of overuse and forced use of
medications going on."
Incentive to comply
Schools will have plenty of incentive to comply with the new
law: Congress is threatening to block federal aid to schools that try to
force medication on students against the wishes of their parents.
Congress also is already considering expanding the law.
A bill sponsored by
Rep. John Kline,
member of the House Education Committee, would extend the Child
Medication Safety Act to include psychotropic drugs such as Prozac, Paxil
"Except for a contagious disease sort of situation, you shouldn't be
required to provide any medication to your kid as a condition of going to
school," said Kline, who has lined up 20 cosponsors for his bill,
including Minnesota Republican Reps. Gil Gutknecht and Mark Kennedy and
Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the chairman of the House education
Reaction in Minnesota is divided.
In 2001, the Legislature passed its own Ritalin Relief Act, sponsored by
state Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior. The little-noticed law states that
schools cannot require parents to submit their children to special
education testing and that Ritalin can be prescribed to children only
after doctors, parents and school professionals explore other strategies.
Sykora said she introduced the bill because parents were feeling
pressured to put their children on Ritalin.
"Drugs can be devastating to kids," she said. But state Rep.
Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, called the state and federal laws
"unnecessary and redundant" and said they are part of a
national anti-psychiatry movement that could prove dangerous to children
with real problems.
Greiling, the leading DFLer on the House's Education Finance Committee,
said parents "aren't leaping to get their kids on medication,"
adding: "There's already plenty of roadblocks to kids getting help
without having the government make it out to be a really bad thing. It's
chilling, this legislation."
According to the most recent federal statistics, Minnesota ranks 22nd
among states in Ritalin consumption in 2004, and per-capita consumption
has actually declined in the past seven years. But critics say the use of
the drug is still far too prevalent.
"The schools still can find roundabout ways of getting kids on
Ritalin," Nash said. She doesn't believe her son has a hyperactivity
disorder and said schools are too quick to recommend Ritalin for any
child who fidgets or might have trouble finishing a task: "There's
so many stages in a child's development. How do you determine what's [a
disorder] and what isn't?"
One boy's case
Garrett, now 11, attended first grade at Kenneth Hall
Elementary School in Spring Lake Park. His mother said school officials
told her that Garrett was "being impatient" in the first few
weeks of school, being silly in class and acting as though he wanted to
be the center of attention. Sometimes he forgot his papers or gloves. She
said she agreed to allow tests of her son because she felt
After the tests, Nash said she was told her son was normal and that he
was performing well academically. But she said school officials insisted
that the boy meet with a specialist in hyperactivity in an attempt to get
him to take Ritalin. She said that even her pediatrician disagreed with
the school's recommendation.
Nash complained to school system officials, who investigated the case.
Spring Lake Park Superintendent Don Helmstetter wrote a letter to Nash,
saying that school officials had "taken steps to ensure that such a
process will not happen to any other parents." At Nash's request,
school officials agreed to destroy any paperwork and to delete any
information on computer hard drives that Nash and her husband deemed
"inappropriate and invalid."
In an interview, Helmstetter declined to comment on specifics of the
case. But he said he would never approve of the practice of school
officials recommending prescription drugs, adding that both Nash and
school personnel felt "very misunderstood."
"Clearly there were breakdowns in communication, whether intentional
or otherwise," Helmstetter said, adding that he supports the efforts
So does Nash, who has decided to teach all three of her children at
"The school was very intimidating," she said. "From the
beginning, the school made me feel they were more powerful and
knowledgeable than me. ... This can happen to anyone."
The writers are at
[EdWatch has added the links to this article.]
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