Special Ed Law Encourages 'Psychiatric Drugging' of Kids, Say Critics

CNSNews.com/March 4, 2002
By Christine Hall

With Congress scheduled to debate a controversial special education law this year, a California group and a handful of celebrity activists are pointing to what they see as the law's incentives for the "psychiatric drugging of children."

"Why are we pouring billions of dollars in here to label kids as mental disordered simply because they may not have been taught to read?" asks Marla Filidei, vice president of the Los Angeles-based Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group affiliated with the Church of Scientology.

Filidei counts actresses Anne Archer, Priscilla Presley and Kirsty Alley as allies in the fight against giving children mood or personality-altering prescription drugs like Prozac and Ritalin.

Because of federal incentives, school systems are diagnosing kids with "subjective" disabilities that have no relation to any identifiable physical disability or impediment, Filidei said. In return, she added, school systems get more federal tax dollars for every kid they add to special education programs.

While students with severe disabilities are expensive to educate, Filidei suggested, many students who are falsely diagnosed with mental disorders represent a potential financial gain to a school system.

Others take issue with Filidei's claims. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights "have been generally opposed to psychiatry for some time" because of their Scientology roots, according to Dr. David Fassler, M.D., of the University of Vermont. "There's a long history."

When it comes to diagnosing mental illness and disorders in kids, "I actually see the opposite problem, that the majority of kids who have problems are not being diagnosed and getting the help they need," said Fassler. "I don't think that there are incentives in the legislation, and I don't see schools over-diagnosing kids.

"Medication can be very helpful and even life-saving for some children," he added. "But in my opinion, medication alone is rarely an appropriate treatment for these kinds of child psychiatric disorders."

Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, disputes the notion that special education students provide a school system with the opportunity of financial gain. Rather, said Hunter, it's a money-losing proposition because federal law requires the school system to pay for medical diagnoses that, alone, cost more per pupil than the check from the federal government.

However, said Hunter, "there are school systems where kids are being over-medicated. As an association, we've been concerned about that for years."

Like Filidei, Hunter hopes the federal education law will be modified this year to give school systems more flexibility in how to administer special education programs and make procedures "less adversarial" between the school system and the parent.

Over the past few years, there have been some well-publicized instances of parents experiencing pressure and even legal action from school systems and child protective services to put a child on certain prescription drugs.

Jill and Michael Carroll from New York State were reportedly pressured by a school, child protective services and a judge to comply with a psychologist's order to put their seven-year-old son on Ritalin. The Carrolls said they complied with the order out of fear that they would lose custody of their child.

"The Ritalin affected his appetite, and his parents took him off," said the Carrolls' attorney Chris Weddle in a 2000 interview. "The Department of Social Services filed charges against them for educational neglect."

The federal law that Filidei identifies as a major part of the problem is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since its inception in 1975, Congress has expanded the scope of the IDEA to include a broader range of disabilities, including more recent conditions like attention deficit disorder (ADD). The law requires schools to provide special education services for disabled students and sends $50 billion per year in federal tax dollars to help cover the extra cost.

According to Filidei, of the 5 million plus kids who are now covered under IDEA, 3.2 million have what Filidei calls "subjective learning disorders."

"If no one can prove any physical abnormality within these children, you give them 'mathematics disorder,' 'learning disorder,' 'nonspecific learning disorder;' Filidei said. "Two-point-eight million children are categorized under nonspecific learning disorder."

Dealing with IDEA mandates has also become a problem for school administrators and school budgets.

President Bush has appointed a commission to discuss possible changes to the IDEA. The commission is scheduled to release its recommendations by July 1.

In January, the president called for an extra $1 billion in funding for the IDEA, but his education secretary has raised concerns about the increasing number of kids who are listed as disabled and called for changes in the IDEA.

"Not only does it hurt those children who are misidentified, it also reduces the resources available to serve children with disabilities," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said during a Houston speech.

Paige, like other special education critics, also lamented what he called the "disproportionate enrollment of minority kids" in special education.

According to a recent study by the National Academies, more than twice as many black children are labeled mentally retarded as white children. And about 1.5 percent of black children are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, compared to only 0.9 percent of white children.

Congress faces a difficult task when it takes up reauthorization of IDEA this year. The IDEA has been the subject of heated fights over the years because it has never fully funded the mandate it imposes on state and local governments. Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) cited the lack of funding as one of his primary reasons for leaving the Republican Party in 2001, a decision that cost the GOP control of the Senate.

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