Ritalin on Trial

While some Houston parents fight what they charge is "a river of Ritalin" running through the schools, one father has gone to court to try to prove that, for his son, Ritalin use is Ritalin abuse.

Nick, the older boy, started Ritalin in the third grade. He was calmer under Ritalin, but the tics that are sometimes a side effect of the drug were horrible, Hall says. "He began to have head tics, eye tics, rolling of the head, jerking," she remembers. "His eyes would roll up in his head and he was constantly blinking.

"Every time there was a problem, the teacher would suggest that maybe he needed to go up in his [dosage]. He was up to 25 milligrams twice a day [60 milligrams is the maximum daily amount a prepubescent child is supposed to take], but he couldn't sleep, couldn't calm down, and when he did go to sleep, he would have a terrible time."

Nick's younger brother, Tony, started at five milligrams, Halls says, "and they jacked him up every four weeks. Every time he had a problem, they would recommend an increase. He was up to 20 milligrams three times a day."

Unlike his older brother, Tony had no problem sleeping at night. "He slept all the time," his mother says. "He constantly looked drugged. His eyes had that blank stare." Both of her sons also lost weight on the medication, she says.

"They say this will help the neurotransmitters," says Hall. "They make you feel that this is going to help to perhaps correct the situation from now on. But it was just masking some of the problems without doing anything about them."

After three years of Ritalin, Tony Hall was falling further and further behind in school. He was in the fifth grade, but was working at second- and third-grade levels. Connie Hall, decided to do something about his problem. And as a Scientologist, she turned to one particular option: a private school called Tanglewood Academy.

Tanglewood Academy is a 60-student school for grades pre-K to high school housed in a former daycare center in southwest Houston. Tanglewood subscribes to the educational principles of Scientology, a movement headquartered in Los Angeles whose beliefs are based on the work and life of the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology, to be charitable, has a rocky reputation; quite a few people consider it little more than a cult. Scientologists have long waged war on psychiatry, which they consider one of the century's greatest evils, and that war has included long-standing opposition to psychiatric drugs, among them Ritalin. Indeed, some observers credit an anti-Ritalin campaign carried out by Scientologists in the late '80s for producing one of the few declines in the drug's use since it was first introduced in the 1960s. Scientology members distributed pamphlets, threatened lawsuits, went on talk shows and, according to one report out of Minneapolis, even rented an elephant to carry a banner proclaiming "Psychs, stop drugging our children" near where a pyschiatrists convention was being held.

One apparent result of all this was a dip in Ritalin production in 1989. Since then, though, Ritalin production and usage has increased dramatically.

But at Tanglewood Academy, Ritalin and other such drugs are still seen as something to be avoided. Instead, the school uses a self-paced curriculum and a special study technique to cope with the problems of children with attention deficit disorders. The school asks that students not watch TV during the school week, and prefers that parents store their televisions until their children leave for college. It also forbids sweetened drinks and cereals at school, and asks that parents sign an agreement to keep their children off sugar. (Some physicians have claimed a correlation between ADD and sugar and food allergies, though the majority of the medical community says that no such link exists.)

After stopping Tony's medication, Hall enrolled him at Tanglewood, where he's completing second- and third-grade work. She also put him and his brother on a low-sugar diet based on natural, rather than processed, foods, and that seems to have helped, she says. Tony's older brother is also off Ritalin, and seems to be doing better without having to cope with the drug's side effects, Hall says.

Hall's frustration with her children's education has now led her back to college, where she's working on a degree in elementary education. She says she recently completed a textbook on human growth and development. "Of course," she notes wryly, "they had Ritalin written down as perfectly safe."

Shortly after Steven Keene's son started taking Ritalin, he began complaining to his father of stomachaches. That was simply the beginning of what Keene insists were numerous negative side effects of the drug, so he notified the administration of Nottingham Country School and the Katy school district that, during the periods his son was in his custody, he didn't want the school to administer the drug to the child. One day, Keene showed up at the school to underline his intention. He also sent a letter to the child psychiatrist who had prescribed the medication, letting him know that he did not approve of the drug or his son's diagnosis. The psychiatrist immediately sent a letter to the boy's mother recommending cessation of the drug and dropping the boy from his care. But Patricia Radloff didn't share her ex-husband's opinion of Ritalin use; she took her son to a pediatrician at an HMO, who continued the medication.

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