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Published Wednesday, June 6, 2001

School inquiry: Too many kids are put on drugs

75% of emotionally disturbed students received powerful psychotropics


Three out of four children attending special schools for emotionally disturbed children in Broward County are being prescribed powerful mind-altering drugs, many of them by school psychiatrists, a School Board investigation shows.

Side effects experienced by children on such drugs were described by district administrators as ``mild.'' They included weight gain, sleepiness, dizziness, nausea, appetite changes and skin rashes. Many of the drugs have not been proven safe or effective for children.

School administrators looked into the use of psychotropic drugs at schools for severely emotionally disturbed children at the request of board member Lois Wexler on May 15. The board had been set to approve the contracts of three psychiatrists at the three schools, which educate children from kindergarten through grade 12 who were sent to the schools after psychiatric evaluations.

``The numbers are alarming,'' Wexler said. ``It is time for us to contract out and do an in-depth evaluation, and raise the level of consciousness, at least at this public school system, over what is actually transpiring.''

At Tuesday's School Board discussion, Superintendent Frank Till called for the creation of a committee to come up with a way to monitor the way children are medicated in the three schools. The committee will issue quarterly reports.

``The threshold question for me is whether we should even be prescribing medication for these students,'' Till said.

Earlier, Till enlisted the aid of Lee Johnson, district administrator of the Department of Children & Families, to review the school system's existing practices for the use of drugs among disturbed children.

Wexler has said her concern over the practices of school psychiatrists was first aroused by a series of reports in The Herald regarding the use of such drugs among foster children. Children's advocates have suggested the drugs are issued more for the convenience of caretakers, calling the use of some drugs a form of ``chemical restraint.''

According to the school district report, 107 of 164 students at Sunset School in Fort Lauderdale have been prescribed some type of psychotropic drug. At Whispering Pines in Miramar, 125 of 152 students have been prescribed such drugs. And at Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, 136 of 170 students have been prescribed the drugs.

Wexler said she was particularly concerned about the use of a particular type of drug, called an atypical anti-psychotic, at Sunset School. According to the report, several students at Sunset have been prescribed such drugs, which include Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel.

At Whispering Pines, 13 students have been prescribed the three drugs, five by the school's psychiatrist, Nyrma Ortiz. At Cross Creek, 20 students have been prescribed the anti-psychotics, six of them by the school's doctor, Munir Madiwale, records show.

Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children in Tallahassee, said he has become increasingly uneasy about the widespread use of psychiatric drugs among children.

``We are looking at a very troubling trend, that sounds at its core to be about convenience and simplicity,'' Levine said Tuesday.

``No matter what the pharmacological justification is, or may be, this seems to be a move for simplistic solutions to complicated problems, for convenience, and for savings,'' Levine added. ``I'm afraid for the children, and, frankly, I'm afraid for the parents.

Herald staff writer Susan Ferrechio contributed to this report.

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