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Schoolkids abuse prescription drugs

Students can get others' prescriptions

Register Staff Writer

So many Iowa schoolchildren take prescription drugs for behavioral or emotional problems that it would have been easy for a Cedar Rapids girl to get pills for herself and two friends, officials said Tuesday.

Three Prairie High School students overdosed on a combination of drugs including Ritalin, a cerebral stimulant, and Prozac, an antidepressant, while at school Monday, authorities said.

All had been treated in intensive care units at area hospitals by Tuesday morning.

The investigation continued into whether the 15-year-old girl who allegedly provided the drugs sneaked them out of a residential treatment center where she was staying.

"Right now, we are leaning toward the possibility that she got them" at the Four Oaks facility in Cedar Rapids, said Mick Starcevich, superintendent of the College Community school district in south Cedar Rapids.

A spokeswoman at Four Oaks, which treats children with emotional and behavioral problems, said she doesn't know how the girl could have smuggled the medication out of the facility.

"We have a very strict procedure when it involves the disbursement of prescription drugs," said Lisa McKirgan, Four Oaks communications director.

A state-licensed employee distributes pills to one child at a time, McKirgan said. Residents must show that their mouths and the cup that contains the pills are empty.

The medications are locked away, because it is common for some of the youths to have drug-abuse problems, she said.

The number of children visiting pediatricians' offices for psycho-social problems more than doubled between 1979 and 1996, a national study shows. Access to prescription drugs is easy for a determined youngster, officials said.

Like many others in the state, each school in the College Community district has dozens of students taking prescription drugs for behavioral or emotional problems, Starcevich said. Some students take prescription drugs under the supervision of school nurses, and others take them before or after school, he said.

Sam Kuperman, director of child psychiatry at the University of Iowa, said although the drugs are much more widely used than they once were, abuse isn't necessarily widespread. "Ninety-nine percent of the time they are very benign," Kuperman said.

He said the antidepressant Prozac really has no street value, but Ritalin, often prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, can be abused.

Problems arise when a child who doesn't want to take a prescribed drug "might cheek it and spit it out or hide it somehow," he said.

Family members often keep prescription drugs where children can get them, said Karen Loihl, executive director of the Iowa Psychiatric Society.

"It doesn't have to be the kids that have the drugs. If their parents are on Prozac, they could get it there," Loihl said. "Parents don't always tend to protect those well."

Starcevich believes the two girls and the boy, all 15-year-old sophomores, took one or more of four kinds of prescription drugs in a restroom during lunch break Monday. A teacher got help when the students began acting strangely soon afterward in class, he said.

School officials did not disclose the students' names.

After the students are released from the hospitals, they will face disciplinary action, Prairie Principal Ken Steine said. School policy dictates that they receive at least a five-day suspension and possible expulsion, Steine said.

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