When 15-year-old Chelsea Rhoades left for school early one day last December, her family expected it to be just another normal, uneventful day at one of Indiana’s premier public high schools. But school officials had slightly different plans.
When Chelsea arrived in her school homeroom that day, her teacher directed everyone who did not have an opt-out slip to another classroom. Only five students had slips. The rest, who had no idea what the teacher was talking about, were divided into groups of 10-15, herded into classrooms and placed in front of computers. Chelsea, who was busy helping a friend in a wheelchair get situated in front of a computer, barely registered what she was signing when a form was placed in front of her. No explanations were issued. At least, none that Chelsea can recall. All she knew was that she was about to take a test. What she didn’t know was that the test, made up of yes-and-no questions with no room for alternate answers or explanations, is part of a TeenScreen mental health screening program for suicide and social disorders that is being implemented in schools across the country, often without parental knowledge or consent.
After completing the test, which took 10 minutes, the students were instructed to wait outside. That’s where an employee with the local community mental health center found Chelsea, directed her to a more private hallway and then informed her that, according to her test results, she was suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and social anxiety. The mental health worker explained that the test results indicated Chelsea had OCD because she responded that she liked to help clean the house and social anxiety disorder because she responded that she didn’t party much. The worker told her that if her condition got any worse, her mom should bring her to the mental health center for treatment.
According to Chelsea, all her friends were told that something was wrong with them, too. In fact, it seemed that the only students who weren’t told they were suffering from some sort of so-called “disorder” were the ones with the opt-out slips. And when Chelsea’s mom heard about the events of the day and her daughter’s diagnosis of OCD and social disorder, she immediately took action.
Driven by recommendations from President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, which has called for mental health screening for all school-aged children, including those in preschool, TeenScreen is sweeping across the nation and finding its way into our public schools. Some states have already moved forward to implement recommendations by the commission. For example, the Illinois legislature has passed a plan to screen the mental health of all pregnant women and children up to 18 years of age. The plan also includes the use of antidepressant drugs. Under such a plan, both children and adults will be screened for so-called mental illness during their routine physical exams.
This all began in April 2002 when President Bush launched a new mental health commission. After supposedly conducting a comprehensive study, the commission recommended mental health screening for “consumers of all ages,” including preschool children. Schools, the commission concluded, are in a “key position” to screen the 52 million students and 6 million adults who work in the public schools.
So what’s the problem with that? For one, although these programs are touted as suicide prevention tools, they seem to have more to do with drugging children than saving lives—and they are understandably raising an outcry among parents and child advocacy groups alike. For example, the Alliance for Human Research Protection (www.ahrp.org) speaks about this screening program in terms of its being a “duo-drug promotion scam” and “declaring otherwise normal children to be mentally ill.” And Phyllis Schlafly (www.eagleforum.org) points out that drug companies are gearing up for bigger sales of antidepressants at the same time that the FDA is requiring warnings that antidepressants increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children who take them.
Chelsea’s parents have done a great deal to sound the alarm in their community about this insidious program. They used part of the family budget to place a large advertisement in their local paper in an effort to inform other parents about troubling aspects of the mental health screening program that include possible referrals of students for treatment, which could include drugs; entirely subjective diagnoses of psychological problems; and lack of evidence that screening for suicide risk reduces suicide attempts. And with the help of The Rutherford Institute, they are also preparing to file a lawsuit against the school district for its failure to inform them about the test or gain their permission.
It has been well established that parents have a fundamental constitutional right over the care, custody and control of their children, absent some showing of abuse or neglect. So for those who want to protect their families from this latest assault on the family, there are some immediate steps that can be taken to combat the problem.
First, learn your rights as a parent under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment. The PPRA is a federal law that was intended to protect the rights of parents and students. The PPRA allows parents to inspect their children’s instructional materials and requires that schools obtain “written parental consent” before schools engage in such programs as mental health screening. Also, contact your local school officials and demand that you be notified immediately if they are conducting mental health screening on your children. Finally, contact your representatives in Congress and protest these invasive activities that are being foisted on unsuspecting students and families.
For Chelsea and her family, the battle is just beginning. But if they are able to prevail, hopefully the Indiana school district, as well as other schools, will develop a little social anxiety of their own.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.