A Different Kind of Drug War

By O'Meara, Kelly Patricia | Insight on the News, December 13, 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Different Kind of Drug War

O'Meara, Kelly Patricia, Insight on the News

A school-board member's resolution calling lop a higher standard of care when prescribing mind-altering drugs for schoolchildren has erupted in controversy in Colorado.

Patti Johnson, a Republican representing the congressional 2nd District on the Colorado State Board of Education, watched the tragic events unfolding last April at Columbine High School in Littleton on CNN with the rest of the nation. She only could imagine the terror the children were experiencing, and her heart ached for parents who were praying that their child would escape unharmed.

Far too many of those prayers went unanswered. And, in the aftermath of the tragedy, another in what now is a long line of bloody schoolhouse shootings, the nation struggles to find answers for why such violence has been occurring. Johnson long had suspected a connection between violence and the children for whom psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs have been prescribed, but it wasn't until the tragedy at Columbine High that she made the decision to act on that suspicion. Soon after the massacre tests revealed that, contrary to popular presumption, the teen-age Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were not taking illegal drugs. Rather, tests from the autopsy on Harris showed therapeutic levels of the psychotropic drug Luvox (Fluvoxomine), one of the new selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, commonly prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and depression (see "Doping Kids," June 28). This news increased Johnson's concern that there might be a connection.

In an effort to increase awareness about the possible adverse effects of psychotropic drugs and to "provide information that could help schools and parents make sound decisions about the health and welfare of students," Johnson says, she began gathering scientific background and data about the psychotropic drugs most likely to be prescribed for schoolchildren diagnosed with such alleged mental disorders as attention deficit disorder, or ADD, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Johnson believes all sides of the issue should be explored and says that "if we're going to say our schools are safe learning environments and we don't look at these drugs, then we're being hypocrites."

In October, Johnson submitted a related four-page resolution during the working session of the State Board of Education and encouraged other board members to offer amendments. Throughout the month changes were offered concerning wording of the resolution, and a consensus developed. The meat of the final one-page resolution is in its last three statements, which follow:

WHEREAS: only medical personnel can recommend the use of prescription medications; and,

WHEREAS: the Colorado State Board of Education recognizes that there is much concern regarding the issue of appropriate and thorough diagnosis and medications and their impact on student achievement; and

WHEREAS: there are documented incidents of highly negative consequences in which psychiatric prescription drugs have been utilized for what are essentially problems of discipline which may be related to lack of academic success....

By a 6-1 vote in mid-November the Colorado State Board of Education adopted Johnson's resolution. Gully Stanford, a Democrat, was the only member of the board to dissent. While Stanford was concerned about many aspects of the resolution, he was most uncomfortable with the suggestion that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between violence and psychotropic drugs. "I think," he says, "there was such a presupposition on the part of the sponsor that there is overmedication and a connection between violence and these drugs that it ruled out any discussion of what is really needed -- a passionate and balanced study of the issue. The way the resolution was presented precluded a balanced discussion."

Stanford based his opposition on what he believes are three flawed premises: widespread abuse in diagnosis and medication of students; rampant overdiagnosis and overmedication; and direct causality between violent behavior and psychotropic drugs.

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