Angry parents lobby for nurses in Arundel schools Officials cite budget restraints

October 27, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Sharon Alger still shakes with anger when she pictures her 6-year-old son standing arm's length from the bottle of pills.

She had gone to Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, as she did at 11:20 a.m. every day, to give her child his second daily dose of Ritalin, a drug used to treat hyperactivity. Without it, Donald Alger Jr. had acted up, throwing blocks, trying to jump out a window, flooding a bathroom and folding another child in a chair.

One day late last month, Mrs. Alger entered the school office to find her son, unsupervised, with a full bottle of medication and TC cup of water on a secretary's desk. The secretary stood with her back turned, opening a box.

"Why is that sitting in front of him?" Mrs. Alger asked.

In a panic, she grabbed the bottle of pills; thankfully, her son had not taken any. Vomiting, tremors, high fever, even convulsions and coma -- all could be caused by an overdose of the federally controlled drug.

"I was so angry and so confused," she recalled. "I thought 'Oh my God. My son could have taken that medication. He could have died.' "

Since then, Mrs. Alger and Sherry Driscoll, another parent of a Park Elementary student on Ritalin, have passionately lobbied county, state and federal officials to hire nurses for county schools immediately. They want to stop the practice of secretaries and other staff administering medication -- a policy they say shortchanges children's health care.

School officials insist they are doing the best they can, given budget constraints they say make hiring nurses for 120 county schools impossible.

But Sharon Alger doesn't want to hear about dollars and cents, not when it's her 6-year-old who could suffer. And some area politicians back her up.

"I would be really concerned," agreed Anna Bachman, legislative aide to her husband, Councilman George Bachman, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn Park. "A 6-year-old doesn't comprehend the ramifications of an overdose."

School officials defend their system as one that has worked well. Schools rely on health aides, hired by the county Health Department, for more serious problems. For day-to-day health care, the law allows them to use school secretaries, teachers or principals, so long as they are trained by a registered nurse.

School officials will meet with North County parents Nov. 24 to discuss a new, system wide plan to place health aides or nurses in each school by 1996. But Mrs. Alger and Mrs. Driscoll say that's not soon enough.

While he would not comment specifically on the Alger case, Kenneth Lawson, assistant superintendent for student support services, defended the current policy.

"We honestly believe our office staff has acted responsibly and in a caring manner to give students medication," he said. "We have not had nurses and have given out a lot of medication. We've never had an incident where a youngster has been harmed."

Tell that to Mrs. Alger. "Are they going to wait until a child is harmed before they open their eyes and say they have a problem?" she retorted. "These schools are time bombs waiting to explode without any medical personnel in there."

In the past, county Health Department nurses or health aides have worked at special education schools, while nurses from community health centers have been available to work in regular schools, said Betsy Fleming-Rice, the school board's coordinator of health issues.

The need for nurses has become more pressing in recent years, Mrs. Fleming-Rice said, as more and more students with special health needs have entered the schools. But tight budgets have limited nursing services even more.

"When faced with the decision about additional teachers or nurses, in the past the decision had been made to hire teachers," Mr. Lawson said. The county pays teachers an average $41,000, while the county Health Department pays registered nurses $40,165, a cost the school system would have to absorb.

To meet a state mandate, school officials devised a pilot program this year, bringing 13 health aides and nurses to the Chesapeake High School feeder system, at a cost of $430,000. A tentative proposal -- which could change by the end of November, when school staff submit next year's budget recommendations to the superintendent -- calls for seven nurses and 12 assistants in North County schools in 1995.

"We're trying to meet a need we've known about for many years," Mr. Lawson said. "We think our plan makes a lot of sense. It uses nurses to perform tasks that only qualified nurses can perform and uses trained health aides. It's more than adequate -- and cost effective."

While state education officials say they are satisfied with the board's plans, Councilman Bachman said the Board of Education must make school nursing a higher priority, submitting budget requests for more nurses and expanding the pilot program each year.

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