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Government News
Law Bars Teachers From Discussing Psychotropics With Parents
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 7 page 6-6

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 medications.

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 parents."

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"In addition, children with depression or anxiety disorders may act withdrawn or distant at school but not at home," the psychiatrists wrote.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."

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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.

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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.

The text of the Utah law is posted at<http://le.utah.gov/~2007/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0202.htm>.

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