Texas School Suspends, Punishes Student for Migraine
Migraines are difficult enough to cope with when you're an adult. When you're 12-years-old, they're even more difficult.
Now, imagine that you're 12-years-old, and you get a Migraine at school. You do what's supposed to be the right thing. You go to the school nurse. And what does the school nurse do? She decides you're not ill. You've taken an illicit drug. She calls the campus police liaison and you're subjected to field sobriety tests.
That's what happened to Aliah Rowe, a student at Blocker Middle School in Texas City, Texas, on February 21. Aliah hadn't been feeling well, but she still went to school. When she had a severe headache and achy stomach come mid-morning, she went to the school nurse. Aliah said she thought the nurse "would just call my mom and send me home because a lot of kids were getting sick from the flu and stuff."1
Instead, the nurse decided that her behavior and appearance were indicative of drug or alcohol use and called the campus police liaison to her office. This liaison is contracted with the Galveston County Sheriff's Office. The deputy performed two field sobriety tests - having Aliah focus on a penlight and having her stand on one leg for a period of time. Then the deputy and nurse called in the school counselor. At that point, they decided that Aliah was "under the influence," although the school district has admitted to not knowing what substance it allegedly was.
Aliah's mother, Cynthia Morgan, pulled her out of school and took her, within an hour, to the University of Texas medical branch and had her tested for drugs and alcohol. There, Aliah was tested for use of amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, methadone, opiates, PCP, propoxyphenes, marijuana, and alcohol. All test results were negative.
A pediatrician examined Aliah, giving his opinion of her condition and what school officials had observed. Dr. Rayne Rouce, examined Aliah on March 7 and wrote,
"Often, with migraines, you can have vision changes, as well as appear sleepy, somnolent or confused. She also needs a new prescription for her glasses, which may be compounding the problem. Based on my exam and clinical history gathered, I do not suspect drug abuse."1
Neither the drug testing nor the doctor's statement carried any weight with the school district, however. Aliah was punished for being ill, her punishment being cited for being under the influence, a three-day suspension from school, and being assigned to the Texas City school district's alternative learning campus for 30 days. Two appeals later, the punishment stood.
Aliah's mother, Cynthia Morgan, told a reporter,
"You are able to defend yourself in a court of law, but not in the school. Just (the school) gets to say she’s on drugs? Where does the justice come from for these children?"1
School district spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said,
"Our school nurse is an RN. Her nursing education and ongoing professional development regarding problems with drug use in school-age students qualifies her to be able to determine if someone is under the influence of a drug, including prescription drugs. I think you will find that other school districts have the same procedures as we do."1
It now appears that negative publicity may have worked where medical evidence didn't. Saying only that they've received "new information," the school district has now reversed their decision and says that Aliah will return to her regular school on Monday after spring break. What the school spokesperson didn't address was whether this incident would remain on Aliah's school record and if the criminal charge would be dropped.
Summary and comments
This should not have happened. It's that simple. School officials can say all they want about drug abuse in the schools and a zero-tolerance policy, but the truth is that those issues could have been addressed without victimizing and stigmatizing Aliah Rowe.
At the moment Aliah presented herself to the school nurse with a headache and stomach discomfort, the nurse's first concern should have been what was wrong with Aliah, not suspecting her of drug or alcohol abuse. Certainly, Aliah's mother should have been notified at the same time as the deputy sheriff. When extensive drug testing was negative, an apology should have been issued. Immediately.
Children learn by example as well as what's taught in classrooms. So, what has this example taught them? It's taught them that:
- they can't trust school officials to do what's best for them.
- they can't trust the school nurse to believe them when they're ill.
- they can get in big trouble just for telling the truth.
By example, it teaches them:
- to judge people based on suspicions rather than evidence.
- that it's OK to compound a mistake by refusing to admit it and make things right.
- that it's OK to stigmatize people who are ill.
I would propose that the school nurse be sent to do some continuing education to learn about diseases that can present symptoms that could be mistaken for illicit drug use. Migraine is one genetic neurological disease that could fit that criteria. Diabetes could also present symptoms that could be mistaken for intoxication. I could go on and list more, that that's unnecessary to make the point. The school nurse blew it, and the incident snowballed from there. Through two appeals, school officials didn't have the common sense, maturity, and courage to admit that an error had been made and back down. If this had happened in the school district where I or my grandchildren live, you can bet that I'd be leading a campaign to have the school nurse and all the school officials involved removed.
Aliah, if you and your family happen across this, please know that I'm very sorry this happened to you. If I can help by sending you educational materials about Migraine, please get in touch with me.
To all of you students, parents, and grandparents out there, let's hope that nothing like this every happens to you or anyone in your family. If it does, please don't back down. Please do what Mrs. Morgan did and get to a doctor immediately. Get the testing done to prove the absence of illegal substances, and hold your heads up high.
To the citizens of Texas City, are you going to tolerate this in your community?
1 Aulds, T. J. "Mom fights 12-year-old's suspension." Galveston County Daily News. March 15, 2011.
2 Aulds, T. J. "TCISD reverses girl's suspension." Galveston County Daily News. March 15, 2011.
3 Connelly, Richard. "Aliah Rowe: Girl with Migraine Suspended for Being Under the Influence, Until Publicity Hits." Houston Press Blogs. March 15, 2011.
4 KTRK-TV. "School mistakenly diagnoses girl's flu as drug related." Houston. ABC Affiliate KTRK. March 15, 2011.
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