ATLANTA — LaVarne Parker didn't like what the pills seemed to be doing to her young son, Melvin.
But, she says, officials at his suburban Atlanta elementary school insisted that he take them if she wanted to keep him enrolled there. The doctor who had prescribed them also offered little solace. In fact, she says, he increased Melvin's dosage.
"He just kept telling me they would help him concentrate in the classroom," she said.
At home, however, the once-bubbly, bright-eyed youngster who had seldom given her any trouble was becoming hostile and suicidal.
On one especially terrifying occasion, she recounts, he suddenly jumped up from the dinner table in a cold sweat, ran to his bedroom, locked the door behind him and began banging his head against the storm-glass window.
"We had to kick in the door to get him away from the window and keep him from hurting himself," Parker recalled.
The pills in question were Ritalin, a powerful drug that has been found useful in treating hyperactive children suffering from attention deficit disorder--a medically perplexing condition marked by an inability to concentrate.
According to federal estimates, the drug is prescribed for about 4 million schoolchildren in the United States. Many educators and pediatric specialists swear by it, contending that it helps otherwise unteachable hyperactive youngsters cope with classroom demands and become productive students.
But in recent months, the oft-called "miracle drug" has become the target of a growing number of legal challenges by parents and child advocates who claim that Ritalin is being used indiscriminately as a "chemical straitjacket" for unruly schoolchildren--with physical and mental consequences that are often disastrous for the youngsters.
Last month in California, for example, a Glendale mother charged in a $7-million Superior Court suit that her 8-year-old was kept in a "dazed stupor" with Ritalin in the classroom and now suffers permanent brain damage and severe emotional distress.
The latest and potentially most far-reaching legal assault is a $125-million class-action lawsuit filed in Atlanta federal District Court, with Parker as the lead plaintiff on her son's behalf. It accuses teachers and school administrators of pressuring parents to place their children on Ritalin.
"This drug made the plaintiffs' children very compliant and less of a problem to the teachers," the suit contends. "No other intermediary steps were taken to address the learning and behavioral problems (of the children) in school" or to determine whether the problems might stem from other sources, such as family troubles, diet deficiencies or drug or food allergies, it adds.
The suit, which names doctors, educators and the American Psychiatric Assn. but not the drug's manufacturer, also alleges that physicians have failed to warn the parents of the drug's potential side effects, which can range in severity from appetite loss and insomnia to abnormally rapid heartbeats and Tourette's syndrome, according to the manufacturer.
Tourette's syndrome is a nervous disorder in which the victim may exhibit uncontrollable facial tics, babble profanities and bark like a dog.
A spokesman for the American Psychiatric Assn. said the association was still reviewing the suit and would make no comment. One of the doctors named in Parker's suit said that neither he nor another doctor named had yet received notification of the suit, and he also declined to comment.
But George Thompson, assistant to the superintendent of the Gwinnett County school district in suburban Atlanta, which is another of the named defendants, said: "Nothing like this has ever arisen here before. What we do not do--and have not done in this case--is encourage anyone to take any specific medication. And even if we did--which we didn't--a doctor would have to prescribe it, not the school."
Works With Parents
Thompson said that the school district goes out of its way to assist hyperactive children with attention deficit disorder and to work with parents in fitting the child to a specialized educational program, if such is required.
"We really went the extra mile with Mrs. Parker," he said. "Every effort was made at every step, from the classroom teacher to the principal to the department of psychological services to provide help for the child involved. But they were denied.
"When you have a problem with a youngster and the parent does not accept the services you are capable of providing, then you reach an impasse and the school has to decide whether they're going to take the steps necessary to remove the child."
Parker says that her son, who is now 15 and was on Ritalin for more than four years, remains depressed and suicidal. She says she took him off the drug last year at her own initiative after he burst into the house from play outside one day, flailing his arms wildly and screaming frenziedly: "Get all these people off of me! They're grabbing at me! Get them off!"