Parents Fight School Boards over Medicating Kids

At first glance, it seemed like a classic David-and-Goliath punch-up: Danielle Lavigueur, a separated mother of two living in Longueuil, on Montreal's South Shore, claims the high school her 12-year-old son Gabriel attends is pressuring her to medicate him with Ritalin for hyperactivity.

Parents Fight School Boards over Medicating Kids

At first glance, it seemed like a classic David-and-Goliath punch-up: Danielle Lavigueur, a separated mother of two living in Longueuil, on Montreal's South Shore, claims the high school her 12-year-old son Gabriel attends is pressuring her to medicate him with Ritalin for hyperactivity. She refuses to yield to the alleged demand, and eventually someone calls in the Children's Aid Society. Feeling besieged, Lavigueur confides in a friend, who introduces her to Raphaël Huppé, head of research for the Montreal-based National Parents Association (NPA). With the group's help, she finds herself a lawyer, and soon she's heading up a class-action suit for $11 million, claiming parents have the final say when it comes to whether a child should be given drugs. But what appears to be a story of a woman of modest means standing up to a school board is actually much more. It is also the tale of Quebec school boards confronted by the controversial Church of Scientology.

The NPA is a fledgling, two-man operation with a number of volunteers. George Mentis, the NPA's president, works alongside Huppé. Both men are open about being Scientologists when asked, although they deny the church has anything to do with the NPA. Scientology, they say, is simply their religion, and the NPA is only trying to help Lavigueur. In early media reports, Mentis has spoken up about the Lavigueur case, but without mentioning Scientology - or the religion's objections to drug use. But Mentis acknowledges he has worked for the Montreal chapter of an organization called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which makes no effort to hide its connection to Scientology in the literature it freely hands out.

Like the NPA, the CCHR says schoolteachers, principals and social workers across Quebec are pressuring parents to either put their "problem" kids on Ritalin or keep them on it. Richer Dumais, the CCHR's Montreal director, worries that medicating children has gotten out of hand. "Imagine if everyone's on drugs in the future," Dumais says. "What kind of world is that going to be?" Dumais has a list of 17 students from nine school boards whose parents all said yes when asked whether they felt their school "pressured them to drug their kids." In an hour-long discussion of what ails Quebec's education system, Dumais never mentions Scientology.

But the church's defence of parental rights is troubling because Scientologists have for decades waged a ferociously ideological war against psychiatry and modern mental health practices. The church is decidedly anti-drug. (Recall how Tom Cruise, the planet's most identifiable Scientologist, famously criticized Brooke Shields for having taken medication for her postpartum depression.) The CCHR is one of the means by which Scientologists wage that war.

Danielle Lavigueur, 35, isn't a Scientologist, and she's aware that Huppé and Mentis are. "There was never any question of religion, not at all," Lavigueur says of her dealings with the two men. Like many French Canadians, she describes herself as a "non-practising Catholic." Lavigueur is petite, soft-spoken and seems shy. She lives in a cramped semi-basement apartment, in a tidy six-unit building. She doesn't have a job and relies in part on friends and family to get by. Seated in her kitchen, across from Huppé, Lavigueur lights a cigarette. She tells how in 2001, seven-year-old Gabriel wasn't sleeping well and was throwing tantrums. According to her statement of claim, now before Quebec Superior Court and pending authorization, Gabriel's school felt the boy needed help. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with Tourette's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. He was prescribed Ritalin, a stimulant that paradoxically calms children, the antidepressant Paxil, which is no longer recommended for minors because of an increased suicide risk, and Risperdal, an anti-psychotic. "I thought he knew what he was talking about," Lavigueur says. "He's a doctor."

The results were uneven. It likely didn't help that the boy's living arrangements were less than ideal. Lavigueur's relationship with Gabriel's father lasted a little more than two years. The mother and son moved a number of times after that. Lavigueur also has a daughter, now 5, with another man. That relationship lasted 10 years, but the couple separated a little more than a year ago.

Gabriel took Paxil for two years before coming off the drug, but remained on the other two. During bad patches, he'd become violent and lunge at his mother. He'd talk about suicide. For a time, he seemed to improve. Then, early last year, he entered high school. At École Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Longueuil, the troubles started again. Gabriel was often angry. He wasn't sleeping or eating. (Common side effects of Ritalin include insomnia, depression, appetite suppression and with large, continuous doses, growth suppression.) Lavigueur called the school to fill them in on her son's condition. Sometimes he'd forget to take his drugs, or simply wouldn't. In November, Lavigueur signed an academic intervention plan with the school that required Gabriel to improve his grades, behave among adults and resist peer pressure. The plan also required he take his drugs. "I signed it," Lavigueur says, "but I told them that I'd see about the medication."

In December, Lavigueur became so concerned by Gabriel's insomnia and poor eating habits that she took him off the drugs. "He sleeps well now," says Lavigueur, "and he's always got his face in the refrigerator." Around the same time, the school started suspending Gabriel for two or three days a week for insignificant transgressions, according to Lavigueur's legal claim (the accusations have yet to be proven in court), like forgetting his pencil case. "I asked them why," Lavigueur recalls. "They said to teach him a lesson."

At the end of March, the school cited Gabriel's "behaviour" and suspended him indefinitely (with the courts now involved, the school won't discuss his behaviour in detail). With the help of the NPA, Lavigueur found lawyer Alan Stein. "The parent has the final say, and if the parent wants to take this child off these drugs, it's not for the school to say, 'Well, if you don't continue with the drugs, we're suspending the child,' " Stein says. "The school is violating the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights."

Gabriel's school has 550 students, about 75 of which are the subjects of intervention plans, says François Houde, the secretary- general of the Marie-Victorin board. None of these plans, he says, require a child to take medication. Why, then, was Gabriel singled out? "I can explain why it was written down," he says. "It was the result of information that madame gave us, but beyond that I'd be getting into the suit, if I explained the motive."

The backdrop to all of this is the staggering rise in the use of medication like Ritalin to control ADHD, not only in Quebec, but across Canada. Last year, Quebec pharmacies dispensed more than 500,000 prescriptions of Ritalin, or its generic equivalent - more than double what it was in 1999, says IMS Health Canada, a market-trend watcher. The dramatic rise presents fertile territory for Scientologists.

The church was created by one-time pulp-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954. In 1968, Hubbard issued an executive directive entitled The War. University of Alberta sociology professor Stephen Kent, who has studied the Church of Scientology for 20 years, says it is laced with references to Russians and psychiatry as a red menace.

Scientologists view Hubbard's writings as scripture, which gives what he said in The War a lot of weight. Psychiatry, he wrote, is "a vehicle to undermine and destroy the West!" Hubbard vowed that Scientology will "take over total control of all mental healing in the West." In 1987, the CCHR undertook a major campaign against Ritalin. "There is a war, by Scientology, against psychiatry," Kent says, "and the CCHR is just part of that war."

Historically, the church has had two goals when it backs someone like Lavigueur, Kent says. The first is to discredit psychiatry and its treatments; the second is to convince people to adopt Scientology's own set of mental health techniques as a replacement for modern psychiatry. Lavigueur says neither Mentis nor Huppé have tried any such thing. Her only contact with the CCHR is indirect, through Mentis.

During the course of a 90-minute talk with Lavigueur, her son sits quietly in the living room. Like his mother, Gabriel is soft-spoken and comes across, in a brief meeting at least, as calm, sensitive and thoughtful. "I was mean to my mother a lot of the time, even though I didn't want to be," Gabriel recalls. He feels better now and says he doesn't want to take drugs anymore. He misses school. "I want to go back, but they won't let me. I'm losing all the friends I made." Throughout the ups and downs, Lavigueur has not seen fit to seek a second opinion from a pediatrician on what, if anything, ails Gabriel. "I regret giving him the drugs," she says. "It was hell, and now I see he's fine - he's like any other kid. The more I think about it, the more I think it was all the change - the new schools, the friends." And right now, some new friends include Scientologists.

See also MEDICAL DRUG ABUSE.

Maclean's May 15, 2006