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Some parents just say 'whoa' to school-required medications

As parents seek more legal protection, controversy over drugs' impact deepens.

By Kelly HearnCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2004

When Patricia Weathers's son Michael had problems in his first-grade class, a school psychologist told the New York mother he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and needed to be medicated with stimulants. If not, he would be sent to a special education facility near his Millbrook, N.Y., school.

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Confused and intimidated, Ms. Weathers says she consented to put Michael on Ritalin, a commonly used stimulant that doctors prescribe to decrease the symptoms of ADHD - restlessness, disorganization, hyperactivity.

But Michael exhibited negative effects from the drug, such as social withdrawal. Instead of spotting the side effects, Weathers says, school officials again pressured her back to the psychiatrist's office, where Michael's diagnosis was changed to social anxiety disorder and an antidepressant prescribed.

Finally, says Weathers, "I saw that the medicines were making Michael psychotic, so I stopped giving them to him." When she stopped the medicine, the school reported her to state child protective services for child abuse.

Though charges were dropped, the Weathers case has become a symbol of the simmering controversy surrounding attention deficit disorder/ADHD, treatment for it, and the subjective diagnostic tests some critics say has led to an overuse of stimulants in schools.

Though there is no official count of people claiming coercion, (Weathers says some 800 parents have logged complaints of similar coercion on her website, child abuse allegations appear to be infrequent, perhaps because states are moving to pass laws that to some degree limit what schools can say or do regarding ADHD and other behavioral disorders.

To date, according to activists who track the issue, seven states have laws prohibiting school personnel from recommending psychotropic drugs for children. Over the past few years, 46 bills in 28 states have either passed or are awaiting action.

Currently, one federal bill, the Child Safety Medication Act, prohibits schools from making medication a requirement of attendance and calls on the Government Accounting Office to track how often schools pressure parents to seek ADHD diagnoses. It passed the House in 2003 but is currently stalled in the Senate.

Yet even as courts and legislatures muddle through the question of offering protection to parents who choose not to medicate their children, controversy deepens over the use of stimulants like methylphenidate - the generic name for Ritalin - by children.

According to testimony given before Congress in 2000, ADHD diagnosis in children grew from 150,000 in 1970 to 6 million in 2000, representing 12 to 13 percent of US schoolchildren.

On the one hand, a recent National Institute of Mental Health study, published in the April edition of the journal Pediatrics, confirmed long-held assumptions that consistent use of stimulants mildly suppresses children's growth - at an average rate of about an inch over the course of two years, in addition to weight loss in some children.