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Panel waters down limits on student mental services

The House Education Council is unswayed by two Scientologist actors' views against psychiatry and psychotropic drugs.

Published April 20, 2005

[AP photo]
Scientologist Kirstie Alley lobbied to little avail Tuesday on behalf of a bill to restrict public school students' access to mental health services.

TALLAHASSEE - Kirstie Alley was weeping so hard she could barely get the words out.

"This isn't an issue about psychiatrist vs. non, but about the children," Alley told the House Education Council Tuesday. A Scientologist, Alley was there supporting a Scientology-backed bill intended to limit students' access to mental health services.

As she spoke, Alley held up pictures of adolescents who committed suicide after taking psychotropic drugs.

"None of these children were psychotic before they took these drugs. None of these children were suicidal before they took these drugs," Alley said.

But the Scientology celebrity firepower, which included actor Kelly Preston, wife of actor John Travolta, wasn't enough to convince the council.

Before they even heard from Alley and Preston, council members stripped the most controversial language out of the bill (HB 209).

The original bill said that before a school could refer a child for mental health treatment, it would have to tell parents there are no medical tests to diagnose mental illness. It also would have required schools to tell parents a mental disorder diagnosis will go on a student's permanent record.

Scientologists strongly oppose psychiatry and other mental health services.

The council approved a watered-down version that simply prohibits schools from denying services to children who refuse psychotropic drugs. A similar federal law passed last year.

Council Chairman Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and the father of a psychiatrist, wrote the amendment that removed the controversial part of the bill.

"I have a son who is a psychiatrist whom I admire and who does wonderful things for people," Baxley said.

Alley and Preston are right that too many children are diagnosed with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and wrongly prescribed Ritalin and other psychotropic drugs, Baxley said. But he opposed how the actors wanted to fix the problem. Particularly, Baxley objected to the way the field of psychiatry was being discredited in the bill, to the detriment of children who truly need that treatment.

"It's just too broad," Baxley said of the bill.

Bill sponsor Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, said several parts of the bill did not reflect what he was actually trying to do.

Rather than require a mental disorder diagnosis be part of a student's permanent record, Barreiro said he just wanted parents to understand that being diagnosed with a mental illness can follow a student for the rest of his life. For example, anyone who has taken Ritalin is automatically rejected from the military, Barreiro said.

The House Education Council wasn't the only Capitol stop Alley and Preston made Tuesday. They also testified before the Senate Education Committee, where a similar bill, sponsored by Tampa Republican Sen. Victor Crist, was being considered.

Crist's bill (SB 1766) would also prohibit schools from denying students services if they refused to take a psychotropic drug. The bill further prohibits schools from making a referral for a mental health evaluation or services, but would allow school personnel to tell parents about unusual classroom behavior.

[Last modified April 20, 2005, 02:56:36]

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