After returning to school from a long weekend earlier this year, Tim Jarboe went to check on the nurse's office at his Athens, Georgia, middle school. The principal gasped when he saw the medicine cart with its lock snapped off and drawers pried open. "Oh, no," Jarboe thought. "Not again."
For the second time since September, the medication bottles of 16 students were missing from Coile Middle School. This meant that hundreds of doses of Ritalin and Adderall, two stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, would be circulating among kids looking for a cheap high. Following the incident, Jarboe put a silent alarm in the nurse's office. He's also considering installing video cameras to keep watch after hours.
"You hate to spend tax dollars that we could be using to buy textbooks," he says. "But we feel like we have to. It's a big responsibility handling these drugs that are used as street drugs."
A recent study by the Massachusetts Department of Health discovered that nearly 13 percent of high school students surveyed admitted to using Ritalin recreationally at least once. Users tend to think methylphenidate, the generic name for Ritalin, will pump up their academic performance-which is why the pills often get called "Smarties." Although the drug has a calming effect on many people with ADHD, it can have an opposite effect on those without the disorder.
Abuse of drugs used to treat ADHD and ADD is growing, experts say, in part because the controlled substances are much more widely available: Production of Ritalin increased 650 percent from 1990 to 1997. Usually, the drug hits the black market because students with prescriptions hand out their pills or sell them for between $2 and $20 a pop. But Ritalin is also among the top 10 stolen drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In this climate, an increasing number of school officials find themselves struggling to slam the door on drug-related break-ins.
A school district in Pennsylvania has put motion detectors outside the nurse's office. The Maine legislature has passed a law mandating that staff members are trained for a certain number of hours before distributing drugs. And schools throughout the nation are no longer keeping medication in nurses' desk drawers or unlocked wooden cabinets, but are instead adding locks and limiting keys, installing safety devices, and counting pills daily to keep track of them.
School administrators used to balk at being asked how they were protecting their nurses' offices, says Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. "Now that the issue is more high-profile, schools are hungry for information," he adds.
It's been hard for some officials to shift to tightened security. "You kind of realize schools aren't built to be a secure facility," says Coile's Jarboe. "In our school, we encourage the public to use our gym and facilities. Our driveways and parking lots are always open. It's a real challenge."
In Tacoma, Washington, one principal attacked the problem by installing a camera that peered through a hole in an eye chart. But that solution was soon shut down: Members of the Jefferson Elementary School's staff, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, complained that the principal had violated employees' privacy.
Some states, including New Jersey and Illinois, are dealing with the problem by limiting access to the medication to certified nurses. School administrators point out, though, that there aren't always enough nurses to go around. Last year, when the Texas board of education suggested that only nurses distribute drugs, the national advocacy group Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder said this would violate the rights of students with ADHD, who need easy access to their medication.
As schools struggle with the problem, they may get help from new, time-released forms of methylphenidate. If such formulas catch on, some students could avoid the midday dose at school altogether.
Meanwhile, administrators must figure out what to do with any pills left over at the end of the year. John McClure, a nurse at Monger Elementary School in Elkhart, Indiana, says his district has discovered an easy way to wash its hands of the problem. When disposing of any unretrieved medication, he flushes the pills down the toilet. "With witnesses and two signatures," he adds.
Vol. 12, Issue 8, Page 11Published in Print: May 1, 2001, as Ritalin Reaction