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Ritalin Debate Continues After Mistrial Ruling : Lawsuit: The case was the first attempt to recover damages from school districts over the administration of the drug for hyperactive children.

December 13, 1990|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some, it was to be a trial of the controversial drug Ritalin, prescribed for hyperactive children. Others saw it as resolution of a Church of Scientology attack on the Glendale Unified School District and a Los Angeles County doctor.

It turned out to be neither. A Glendale Superior Court judge last week declared a mistrial, at least temporarily short-circuiting a case that could have provided the first jury verdict in a lawsuit attempting to recover damages from school districts over the administration of Ritalin. Several such suits are pending nationwide.

The Glendale case began in November, 1987, when Glendale parent Adelia Lorenzo filed a $5-million suit against the school district, Balboa Elementary School Principal Dianne Hawley, the county and Dr. Alvin Yusin of County-USC Medical Center.

Lorenzo alleged that her son Michael, 11, suffered severe depression, loss of appetite and other side effects because he was coerced into taking Ritalin for three months. She contended that Michael, who now is tutored at home, still suffers from depression and headaches.

Ritalin is an amphetamine-like narcotic used to treat hyperactive children. About 800,000 people use the prescription drug, said a spokeswoman for CIBA-GEIGY, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company that manufactures Ritalin.

The Church of Scientology's interest in the case is a side issue, outside the facts in dispute at the trial. School district officials accuse the church of using Lorenzo to further their national campaign against the drug. Church officials and Lorenzo's attorneys, both of whom are Scientologists, deny the church is directly involved and dismiss the district's argument as irrelevant.

The trial began Dec. 3 and was expected to last three weeks. But in the fourth day, Judge Joseph Kalin declared a mistrial after Lorenzo and her prime witness brought up allegations of racism at the school. Kalin had ordered the issue excluded from testimony because Lorenzo had not provided enough evidence to back the claim in pretrial proceedings.

Attorney Gary R. Gibeaut, who represents Hawley and the school district, said Kalin's ruling was first breached on the opening day of trial when Adelia Lorenzo testified that Michael's classmates often called him "blackie" and that his teachers did nothing to stop them.

Kalin stopped short of ending the trial at that point, but admonished Kendrick L. Moxon, one of Lorenzo's attorneys, for encouraging the testimony.

Three days later, Mehrang Day, a former day-care teacher at the school, testified that Michael's classmates had called him racial epithets. That was too much for Kalin. He declared a mistrial and told jurors that Lorenzo's attorneys had not adequately warned Day about avoiding racial allegations.

Moxon and co-counsel Robert Brennan said Kalin's decision was "ridiculous." They said they will request that the case be tried in Los Angeles because they believe Kalin--and public opinion in Glendale--is biased.

"Frankly, I find Judge Kalin to be an excellent judge, but I think he made up his mind early on that he didn't want anything to do with this case," Brennan said. "He knows which side of the bread his butter is on. Glendale is sensitive about racial issues."

Lorenzo could not be reached for comment, but Brennan said she was "very upset. That the case has been delayed a couple of months worsens the impact on the child and the family."

Lorenzo's lawsuit alleged that Michael was a bright, energetic boy who was wrongly labeled a troublemaker by Hawley and several teachers soon after he enrolled in kindergarten at Balboa in 1985.

By the second grade, according to the lawsuit, Hawley was beating the boy with a paddle and threatening to expel him unless he took Ritalin. Hawley and other school officials also allegedly coerced Adelia Lorenzo into authorizing the spankings, which she said she thought would be by hand only, and persuaded Yusin to prescribe Ritalin.

The lawsuit contended that Yusin failed to warn the Lorenzos about possible side effects of the drug and at one point increased the dosage at the suggestion of the school district.

Lawyers for the county and school district said the child was a severe discipline problem and was suspended several times after being disruptive or physically attacking other students.

They said Adelia Lorenzo gave Hawley written permission to spank her son at school, that the principal and other school officials simply followed Yusin's prescription and his mother's instructions when they administered Ritalin, and that Yusin had warned Lorenzo about side effects.

Defense lawyers also disputed the claim that Michael Lorenzo suffered permanent side effects.

Scientologists are opposed to Ritalin and other psychiatric drugs because they believe they are "mind-control" tools that lead to depression, violence and even suicide, said Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, formed by the church to investigate mental health abuses.

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