Educators in Utah can no longer communicate concerns directly to parents
about children who display signs of depression or other mental health
problems, under a law enacted in March.
The "Medication Recommendations for Children Act" prohibits
teachers and administrators from recommending that parents obtain psychotropic
prescriptions for their children, bars them from removing a child who does not
take such medications, and forbids state and local officials from removing a
child from the custody of parents who refuse to administer psychotropic
The bill would, however, allow teachers to refer a student to school
counselors or mental health professionals within the school who could make
recommendations for treatment or referral.
The law was pushed despite state school board rules that already bar school
officials from requiring students to take medication as a condition for
attending classes. It also comes without the filing of a case to deny parental
custody for refusal to administer psychotropic medications.
The impact of the new law, warned psychiatrists and educators, is that
teachers will be prevented from communicating with parents when their child is
exhibiting signs of an emotional disturbance.
"Today, the amount of time that children spend with their teachers
often matches or exceeds that [with] their parents," wrote Thomas
Anders, M.D., David Corwin, M.D., Douglas Gray, M.D., and Keri Herrmann, M.D.,
all Utah psychiatrists, in an op-ed column in the Ogden
Standard-Examiner. "This gives teachers a unique perspective to
identify troubling behavior. When behavior interferes with learning or
friendships, teachers should be encouraged to voice their concerns to
Proponents of the law, which was opposed by the Utah PTA, said
communication between teachers and parents about students' possible mental
health problems is unnecessary because "troubling behavior" will
show up at home. The psychiatrists warned in their editorial, however, that
children can behave very differently at home than at school, and teachers
should be encouraged to relay such behavior to parents.
"In addition, children with depression or anxiety disorders may act
withdrawn or distant at school but not at home," the psychiatrists
wrote. "Failure to report warning signs like these could result in
serious harm, including self-injury or even suicide."
As the measure worked its way through the legislature, psychiatrists and
pediatricians testified that it would complicate long-standing efforts to
improve communication among physicians, schools, and parents to diagnose
children with mental illness properly. They warned that the new law would
exacerbate barriers physicians already face in obtaining information from
schools they need to make accurate diagnoses.
Opponents of the law said it was unnecessary because many of the actions it
bars were already prohibited by federal law. The measure actually will narrow
parental protections created by a 2003 Utah State Board of Education
regulation that prevents schools from refusing to admit a student for not
taking any medication, not just psychotropic drugs. Before the new measure was
signed into law, an attorney for the State Office of Education said the school
board would need to repeal the rule if the legislative measure was enacted,
according to NAMI Utah.
Support for the measure, which was met with a veto in the previous
legislative session, was led by conservative activists. Members of the local
chapter of the Eagle Forum, a Washington-based conservative family advocacy
group, testified before the legislature that the law was needed to protect
parental rights and reduce what they claimed was overprescribing of
psychotropic medications. The Eagle Forum supported similar laws enacted last
year in Alaska and Arizona.
The Utah Association of School Psychologists testified that there were no
documented reports of such abuse or of teacher efforts to require children to
take psychotropic medications in Utah.
State Rep. Mike Morley (R), the measure's sponsor, said it came in response
to requests from teachers who were reticent to discuss student issues with
parents because they were afraid of violating the earlier board rule. The law,
he said, would codify and clarify teacher communications by listing all the
areas of student activity about which teachers can talk to parents, including
social interactions and behavior.
The law requires the school board to instruct teachers on its particulars,
but it provides no funding or guidelines to ensure uniform dissemination among
the state's 40 school districts. Opponents of the measure said the practical
result of the law will be the conclusion by educators that they should not
discuss any behavioral concerns.
"Consequently, teachers will simply stop talking to parents to avoid
the risk of being reprimanded for saying the wrong thing," said Sherri
Wittwer, executive director of NAMI Utah, in a letter to the governor.