A Hyperactive Child's Parents Seek the Right to Say No to Drugs

Nine-year-old Casey Jesson is fond of video games and computers. He likes running through the woods near his parents’ Derry, N.H., home, pestering his 11-year-old sister, Marissa, and clomping around in oversize cowboy boots. He is, in short, a lot like other kids.

But there is another side to Casey, a side that has made his life a lot less like other kids’. Diagnosed three years ago as hyperactive, Casey has spent much of his time in school talking out of turn, rocking, humming, even tipping over his desk and eating pencils. This spring the Derry school superintendent, frustrated by the unending disruption, took drastic action: He suspended Casey and insisted that his case be heard by the state department of education. After the hearing, a decision was issued that gave the school district the power to exclude Casey from the public schools unless he took Ritalin, a stimulant given to an estimated 1 million of the nation’s 6 million hyperactive children.

Casey’s parents, Michael and Valerie Jesson, have refused to treat their son with the drug. Though Ritalin improves attention spans in 80 percent of hyperactive kids, it is ineffective or produces such side effects as insomnia and stomachaches in the remaining 20 percent. Some parents say their children have become violent, even suicidal, while under treatment. In recent years parents and doctors have grown increasingly concerned that the drug is overprescribed. The Jessons, who say Ritalin made Casey depressed and destructive during the 20 months he took it, have vowed to appeal their case in federal court, and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is supporting them. No longer just a rambunctious problem child, Casey has become the unwitting protagonist in a highly emotional public debate.

Casey’s difficulties began when he was a toddler. “He was a little antsy, a little stubborn,” says his father, Mike, 36, a foreman with the local parks department. The Jessons weren’t particularly worried until Casey’s kindergarten teacher called to complain. “He was the class clown,” says Valerie, 35, a waitress. “He didn’t know when to quit.” Concerned, Valerie took Casey to a pediatric neurologist, who prescribed Ritalin.

Casey began taking the drug the summer before he entered first grade. It was then, his parents say, that his behavior became truly disturbing. He had trouble sleeping, lost his appetite and started wetting his bed. “I felt kooked out,” says Casey. “Like a zombie.” By turns withdrawn and manic, he once threw himself down a staircase at a local gym. “He became an incredible liar and did some stealing,” Valerie says. “I started to think, ‘We’ve got a bad seed.’ I loved this child, but I didn’t like him.” Nor, according to Valerie, did officials at Derry’s Grinnell School, where Casey was a first grader. Casey’s teacher, Valerie says, called often to complain that “she had to keep Casey right by her desk” because he would not complete his work.

As the months passed, the Jessons’ marriage began to show signs of strain. “My husband wanted me to do something about Casey, and I wanted him to do something,” Valerie says. “Everything was falling apart,” Mike says. “At one point I told Valerie I should just get in the car with Casey and drive into a wall.” It was that cry of despair that helped shock Valerie into a decision. In April 1987, 20 months after he began treatment, she took Casey off the drug. His doctor, Valerie says, approved her decision.

According to the Jessons, the improvement was almost instantaneous. Casey began sleeping well, and his appetite returned. “He became a more consistent child,” says Valerie. But his school saw things differently. “When Casey was on the drug, he was okay,” insists Derry’s director of pupil personnel services, Hugh Holt, who questions Valerie’s claim about the teacher’s frequent phone calls. Off the drug, Holt contends, Casey’s behavior “was the worst I’ve seen in a hyperactive child.”

Last September, at the beginning of Casey’s third-grade year, administrators placed him temporarily in a special education class at East Derry School and set to work developing an individual-education plan for him. Based in part on an evaluation of Casey by doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital, the plan called for special classes, counseling for both Casey and his parents and a resumption of medication. “I refused to sign it,” Valerie says.

Soon after, Casey was returned to a regular classroom. Exasperated by his continuing disruptiveness, Derry’s superintendent of schools, David Brown, announced the boy’s suspension. “Your son’s current placement in a third-grade classroom is an obvious absurdity,” he wrote. “He is almost never still.”

The four-week exile period was difficult for Casey, who was already weary of switching from school to school. “I liked my friends in my one school,” he says, “and then I went to the next one and I didn’t see them.” The suspension, he adds, “wasn’t so good because I had no friends.” In April the state hearings officer reinstated Casey in school but also upheld the school’s individual-education plan that included medication. Returning Casey to his public classroom without medication would, the decision read, “be harmful to Casey’s education as well as to the education of his classmates.”

Although still drug-free, Casey was allowed to finish out the school year at the Grinnell School, where he was tutored alone but joined his peers for art, gym and recess. Derry school officials say they are optimistic that a similar plan, now under discussion with the Jessons and their lawyer, can be arranged for him in the fall. “Casey is a likable child,” says Kathy Boyce, assistant director of pupil personnel services. “We won technically on medication, but we know you can’t force a parent to medicate a child.” The Jessons don’t want anyone, in Derry or elsewhere, to be able to try. They plan to file their appeal in federal district court later this summer.

All the Jessons are relieved that the past school year is finally behind them. Valerie and Mike are spending as much time as they can with Casey and are exploring other forms of treatment for his hyperactivity: diet restrictions, allergy testing and behavior modification. Ultimately, Valerie is certain, drugs will not be the answer. “Casey is strong-willed, but that’s true with many children,” she says. “He is not swinging from the chandeliers.”

In the meantime, as one school year fades into memory and another quickly approaches, Casey has settled easily into the rhythms of summer. He says he is excited about going on to fourth grade, but his parents know that Casey will be forever marked by his experience. “His self-esteem is shattered,” says Mike. “It’s going to take a lot of time and tender loving care before he gets over this.”

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