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.
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,
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 www.ablechild.org), 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
At the same time, another part of the same study gave the use of
medication a boost when it comes to the treatment of ADHD. …