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Schools misdiagnose students with minor problems

Thursday, August 17, 2000

By Anjali Sachdeva, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In schools across the country, some children are being intentionally misdiagnosed as learning disabled or even brain damaged.

At times it's the only way for teachers to help troubled students, according to Howard Adelman, a professor of psychology and co-director of the School Mental Health Project at UCLA.

Adelman said that there is a small group of children who suffer from learning disabilities. But he estimates that 85 percent of the students in learning disabled programs are misdiagnosed, sometimes because the children are ineligible for aid programs unless they receive that designation.

"The only way you can help them is to let them fall to the bottom and give them a label," explains Adelman.

Adelman yesterday presented the keynote speech at a seminar for school administrators and mental health professionals from Allegheny and surrounding counties titled "Comprehensive Planning for Safe and Caring Schools."

The conference, held at the Edgewood Country Club, was sponsored by the Safe Schools Program, a branch of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Adelman says that instead of forcing teachers and social service workers to use extreme measures to get children into aid programs, schools should develop comprehensive systems to deal with what he described as "garden variety" learning, emotional and mental health problems among children.

Through these programs, Adelman believes, problems can be controlled before they result in academic failure or, in the case of emotional problems, school violence.

Mark Greenberg, director of the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State, says that he once had to have a mentally ill fourth-grader arrested before the child was eligible for social services.

Greenberg, who also spoke at the conference, says that in most schools' social service budgets, between 70 percent and 80 percent of funds are directed to children who have been removed from their homes and put into foster care or juvenile detention.

"As long as we continue to spend 70 to 80 percent on those extreme cases, all we'll have is waves of more kids having problems," says Greenberg.

Adelman says that the highly publicized school violence of the past few years has led to increased funding for social intervention programs, but that constricting funds to anti-violence programs ignores the emotional and behavioral problems that are the precursors of school violence.

"When [school] crisis teams are really working, they start talking about prevention because they see that a lot of these problems are preventable and they don't want to have to keep mopping up the blood."

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