Special Education

Stimulant-Drug Abuse in Schools Overstated, Study Says

By Lisa Fine — October 03, 2001 3 min read
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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.

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