Dumped In The E.R.
[New York Daily News, 17 May 2004]
When students are handcuffed in ambulances, they can’t bug teachers
By ALISON GENDAR & RICHARD MORGAN
BONUS: A 7-year-old's tale
DOUBLE BONUS: The New York Times plays catch-up
Schools are routinely dumping unruly students in hospital emergency rooms, abusing a system that’s supposed to help kids only in a dire psychiatric crisis, doctors and hospitals charge.
Schools are required to get immediate psychiatric help for students who pose a “clear threat” to themselves or others. But hospitals say many kids are being carted off to emergency rooms in ambulances just for disciplinary problems.
“A child gets in a food fight, pulls off a teacher’s toupee, throws things, creates a ruckus and gets packed off to the ER. None of these examples are psychiatric emergencies,” said Andrew Bell, director of the Child and Adolescent Crisis Intervention Program at North Central Bronx Hospital.
The hospital has seen an average of 42 students a month this school year.
The Department of Education refused to reveal how many students are forced into emergency appointments with hospital psychiatrists every year. But medical centers said they often see kids who shouldn’t be there.
Officials at North Central Bronx and the Children’s Hospital at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan estimated at least a third of student visits are unwarranted.
Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens and Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn told the Daily News they also have seen high numbers of false alarms.
And medical officials said their colleagues citywide fret about the problem.
“Schools are overcrowded, teachers overworked, so they send us kids they just don't want to deal with - or don’t know how to deal with. But the kids aren’t having a mental crisis,” said Dr. Julia Najara, who heads New York-Presbyterian’s Comprehensive Emergency Service.
An unnecessary trip to an emergency room can cost taxpayers $900 to $1,600 - and wastes the time of harried pediatric mental health workers.
Doctors first saw a spike in school mental health referrals after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
School officials would rather be safe than sorry. But for students, an ER visit can be traumatic and stigmatizing.
Teachers at Public School 152 in Washington Heights sent Denise Rodriguez, 14, to New York-Presbyterian last month.
“They said I was crazy, that I went off and tried to scratch myself, cut my face with a pen,” Denise said.
Denise said teachers discovered a kitchen knife she brought to school to defend herself against three armed girls who had threatened her.
“I was angry. I was afraid of getting jumped by them girls. But I’m not crazy,” she said.
In her frustration, Denise said she broke a pen and got ink on her face when she wiped her brow. School staffers said she was trying to hurt herself.
“I had to get in the ambulance, go to the hospital and answer dumb questions, like ‘Do I see things?’ - you know, hallucinations, visions and stuff. It was stupid to be there,” she said.
New York-Presbyterian staff agreed.
The Education Department said principals are making the best decisions they can in “extreme” situations. “The procedure is to attempt to calm the student, call school safety, the child’s parent and EMS,” the department said in a statement.
The department said parents are included in the decision to take children to the hospital. Cases where parents were not informed were an aberration, the department said.
Parents often don’t know they have other options, doctors said. One solution, health and school staff said, is for school officials to work with hospitals to learn how to recognize real threats.
“A trip to the emergency room, even if it is done well, is the worst introduction to mental health services you can give a child,” said Dr. Jennifer Havens, director of pediatric psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian. “Anything that avoids that trip is better - for the school and especially for the kid.”
back to home page