Special Education

Stimulant-Drug Abuse in Schools Overstated, Study Says

By Lisa Fine — October 03, 2001 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

With a spike in the use of stimulant drugs to treat children with attention disorders in recent years, many principals and teachers have feared that abuse of such drugs at schools would become widespread. Students’ sales of their prescription pills and thefts of such drugs by other students have been concerns for some schools.

But the first federal survey to look at the prevalence of abuse of stimulant drugs in schools—primarily methylphenidate, known commonly under the brand name Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—paints a less worrisome picture.

Middle school and high school principals around the country report having seen few instances of theft or abuse of stimulant drugs used to treat attention disorders, according to the report last month by the investigative arm of Congress. Most schools have procedures for storing and distributing such pills to minimize the risk of drug theft, the General Accounting Office says. (“Thefts of Drugs Prompt Schools to Tighten Up,” March 28, 2001.)

The Sept. 14 report says that 8 percent of principals surveyed said that stimulant drugs were abused or stolen at their schools in the 2000-01 school year. Most of those principals said they only knew of one incident at their schools.

The survey shows that administrators have taken measures to ensure security in how the medicines are stored and distributed. Medications are kept locked in 96 percent of the schools, and students are observed while taking their medications. Almost 90 percent of the principals responding reported that their schools receive state or local guidance on the administration of drugs.

An average of 2 percent of students are administered attention-disorder medications, the survey found.

Advocates for children with ADHD said they were pleased the report showed that the drugs were being handled responsibly.

“It reassures parents and caregivers that stimulant medications are completely safe when appropriately administered,” said E. Clarke Ross, the chief executive officer of the group Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, based in Landover, Md. “It undermines the alarmist scare tactics used by fringe groups who consistently ignore the science-based, evidence-based practices used to treat ADHD,” Mr. Ross argued.

Federal Concerns

The GAO surveyed 1,033 principals in 50 states and the District of Columbia between February and June this year; 735 principals responded.

A year ago, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, fearing the potential for abuse of Ritalin because it gives a cocaine-like high when the pills are crushed and snorted, asked the GAO to investigate abuse and theft of Ritalin and similar drugs at schools.

Between 1990 and 1997, the production of Ritalin increased 650 percent, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It is also among the top 10 drugs in pharmaceutical theft, the DEA reports.

Doctors prescribe drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, and a new extended-release medication called Concerta to students with attention disorders to help them focus and control their impulses. A study released in February by the Massachusetts Department of Health showed that 12.7 percent of high school students surveyed reported having used Ritalin as a recreational drug at least once in their lives. The Massachusetts study showed Ritalin abuse peaking in the 10th and 11th grades.

Drug-abuse experts say that around the country, methyl-phenidate pills are being sold on the street for $2 to $20 each. Students report using the drugs to help them stay up late and study; they often refer to the pills as “Vitamin R” or “smarties.” Most Ritalin hits the black market because students with prescriptions give away pills or sell the drug to students without prescriptions.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Opinion Inclusive Teachers Must Be 'Asset-Based Believers'
Four veteran educators share tips on supporting students with learning differences as they return to classrooms during this pandemic year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Opinion 20 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences This Year
Embed student voices and perspectives into the classroom is one piece of advice educators offer in this third pandemic-affected school year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Schools Must Identify Students With Disabilities Despite Pandemic Hurdles, Ed. Dept. Says
Guidance stresses schools' responsibilities to those with disabilities, while noting that federal COVID aid can be used to address backlogs.
2 min read
School children in classroom with teacher, wearing face masks and raised hands
Special Education Attention Deficit Rates Skyrocket in High School. Mentoring Could Prevent an Academic Freefall
Twice as many students are diagnosed with ADHD in high school as in elementary school, yet their supports are fewer, a study says.
4 min read
Image of a child writing the letters "ADHD" on a chalkboard.