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Drugging kids and school violence

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Believe it or not, there are now over 5 million school kids in America on psychotropic drugs, most of which are prescribed and administered by the schools themselves. That's the report we get from Kelly O'Meara, writing in Insight magazine on June 28. In addition, according to Teacher Magazine of December 1996, there are four million kids on Ritalin alone, one of the most powerful of the drugs now being given routinely to children in American schools.

What is most disturbing, however, is the growing awareness that the increased violence among school children may have more to do with the drugs than with the guns they use to carry out their violence. Yet, neither the president nor the Congress have addressed this aspect of the problem. Instead of going after the manufacturers of guns, why don't they go after the manufacturers of the drugs that are more than likely causing violent behavior among children?

We know, for example, that Eric Harris, 18, who, with his friend Dylan Klebold, murdered his fellow students at Columbine, had been taking Luvox, one of the new antidepressant drugs approved in 1997 by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, among children under 18.

We also know that T. J. Solomon, 15, who shot and wounded six classmates at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., on May 20 was on Ritalin for depression. Shawn Cooper, 15, who fired two shotgun rounds, narrowly missing students and teachers at his high school in Notus, Idaho, was also on Ritalin, for bipolar disorder.

Kip Kinkel, 15, was on Ritalin and Prozac. He murdered his parents and then went on to school where he fired on students in the cafeteria, killing two and wounding 22. Also, we know that Mitchell Johnson, the 13-year-old student at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., who mowed down several children and a teacher with his friend Andrew Golden, 11, was on some sort of medication since he was being treated by a psychiatrist.

It is not easy getting medical information about these killers, finding out what drugs they've been taking. In fact, it is virtually impossible to find out what long-range effects Ritalin has had on the millions of children who were taking it over a period of years. Ritalin has been with us since 1955, when the FDA first approved it. It is now used most commonly to treat a disorder known as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder).

What are the symptoms of this disorder that has afflicted millions of American children? According to a Time cover story in July 1994, "ADHD has three main hallmarks: extreme distractibility, and almost reckless impulsiveness and, in some but not all cases, knee-jiggling, toe-tapping hyperactivity that makes sitting still all but impossible." Ritalin is supposed to alleviate the symptoms. It does not cure the disorder.

Indeed, according to Business Week (June 6, 1994), ADHD is "an often-hereditary biochemical condition." And the Ladies Home Journal of September 1993 reported that ADHD is "a neuro-chemical disorder in the areas of the brain that regulate attention" as well as "a lifelong, genetically based affliction."

Drs. Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, authors of "Driven to Distraction," write, "ADD lives in the biology of the brain and the central nervous system. The exact mechanism underlying ADD remains unknown." In other words, we are dealing with a neurological enigma wrapped in a biological mystery. But is it possible that there is a much simpler explanation for ADD, one that would put a lot of doctors and drug manufacturers out of business? Indeed, is it not possible that the school atmosphere itself is causing the extreme distractibility and impulsive behavior that are the major symptoms of ADD?

Believe it or not, there was no such thing as ADD or ADHD when I was going to school back in the 1930s and '40s. In fact, you couldn't possibly have Attention Deficit Disorder in the kind of classrooms I was in. First of all, all of the desks and seats were bolted to the floor. You couldn't move them. Also, the walls were generally bare. Maybe a picture of George Washington, or a map. Otherwise there was nothing on the walls to distract anyone. The room was as clean and orderly as a pin.

The room was also silent. You were not permitted to talk to your fellow classmates during class. The teacher was the focus of attention. She sat at her desk in front of the class and exercised a benign, no-nonsense discipline on all of us. She taught us all the same thing, from the blackboard or a textbook, and she used rational methods of teaching, methods that had been proven over the centuries to produce academic results. Our teachers were not interested in our feelings or our sexuality or trying to change our values. Their concern was purely academic, and we all knew that.

Thus, there was no ADD. Any impulsive behavior would have landed you in the principal's office. But now, let's fast forward to 1999 and enter a typical first-grade classroom in today's public school. The kids are no longer seated in rows in desks bolted to the floor. They are now seated around tables, interacting with each other, pestering each other, chatting, interrupting. Each child is doing something different. One may be writing, another reading, another drawing. One child may be under a table reading a book; another may be sprawled on the floor drawing a large picture. Several children may be working on a project.

The walls are now covered with every conceivable kind of distraction: dinosaurs, Mickey Mouse, bulletin boards, pictures of animals, travel posters, you name it. Then there are fish tanks, gerbils, and rabbits to grab one's attention. Mobiles hang from the ceiling, swaying in the breeze. Anything and everything that could possibly distract a child is there.

The teacher, of course, is no longer the focus of attention. She is now a facilitator who wanders around the room, helping one child here, chatting with another there. She is also using the most irrational teaching methods ever devised by so-called educators: whole language, invented spelling, the new new math, plus sensitivity training, values clarification, transcendental meditation, cooperative learning, death ed., sex ed., suicide ed. She's very much interested in your feelings, your sexuality, your family, your thoughts about death, suicide, abortion, feminism, homophobia, the environment, global warming, and world citizenship. She is also practicing psychiatry without a license.

Is it any wonder that so many children suffer the equivalent of a cognitive breakdown in American schools? The entire school configuration is designed to cause distraction, inattention, frustration, impulsiveness, hatred, anger, and violence. And the only way that many children can be forced to endure that atmosphere is by drugging them.

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