The city of Omaha is prescribing speed for unruly pupils in its school system-and there are a few people in Washington who think that this might bear looking into.
Between five and ten per cent of the city's school children-possibly as many as 6,250-are now regularly taking "behavior modification" drugs to improve their class behavior and ability to learn, according to the Washington Post.
In Washington, Rep. Neal Gallagher (D-N.J.) said he would begin an investigation. The Food and Drug Administration announced independently that it also would look into the practice.
The five drugs given to the children-most of whom are in grades one to six-are known by the brand names Ritalin, Dexedrene, Deaner, Aventil, and Tofanil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists all five as dangerous substances, and warns doctors to use particular care in dispensing Ritalin-a powerful stimulant-because of the danger of addiction and undesirable side effects.
The widespreaod use of the "behavior modification" drugs is due mostly to the efforts of Dr. Byron B. Oberst, an Omaha pediatrician whose personal enthusiasm for the drugs led him to form a parent-teacher group called Skills, Technique, Academic Achievement and Remediation (STAAR) with the object of pushing their use.
Oberst said that the drugs increase the child's ability to concentrate. Of Ritalin he added, "how it works is still the $64 question."
Although school officials contend that the school takes no part in the program, leaving it up to the family doctor, some teachers have been selecting the members of their classes whom they want to take the drugs and then urging parents to obtain them.
One family reported that a teacher badgered them for weeks until they agreed to get the drugs for their son. They later decided not to give them to the boy, but told the teacher that they had. On the boy's next report card, the teacher praised his improved behavior and attributed it to the drug-and his grades climbed accordingly.
Some school officials have expressed concern about the program's effect on children. Don Warner, assistant superintendent of schools, said he had worried about allowing children to carry around dangerous and possibly addictive drugs.
"They were trading pills on the school grounds," he said. "One would say, 'Here, you try my yellow one and I'll try your pink one.'"
Some of these doubts have been quieted by a new program which allows the school to dispense the drug after the parent obtains it, and many Omaha officials feel that they have only begun to explore the possibility of "behavior modification" drugs in the schools.
"I would say it's a growing field," one said.