In his book, White Prescriptions?: The Dangerous Social Potential for Ritalin and other Psychotropic Drugs to Harm Black Males, Dr. Terence Fitzgerald examines the over prescription of behavioral drugs for black males and the resulting impact on their educational achievement.
Fitzgerald earned his Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois and has spent the past seven years working in achievement and special education in the area. He has also served as a social worker for four years, taught a graduate level social work course and presented to the internationally invited American Education Research Association. He is the author of the journal articles “Control, Punish, & Conquer: U.S. Public School Historical Attempts to Control Black Males” and “Controlling the Black School Age Male: The Circumvention of Public Law 94-142 and Section 504”, as well as an upcoming book titled Whipping Boys: The Anguished Voices of Black Males in Public & Higher Education.
Smile Politely: The title “White Prescriptions” seems to suggest that these drugs are being prescribed as some sort of retrofit option for black males yet does not seem viable and/or effective. Is that an accurate interpretation?
Fitzgerald: Close. The book notes that within U.S. public school, it can be said that the policies and procedures are instituted within a racist foundation of isolation, oppression and control. This is no different than what is mirrored in the U.S. juvenile justice policies and procedures of the U.S. In terms of schools, many scholars in the academy have asserted that this is evidence that the overt forms of segregation, exclusion and need for control that occurred within U.S. public schools prior to Brown [vs. Board of Education] has morphed into continued covert forms of racism, that results in the physical, emotional and social control that ultimately punishes people of color, but more often, black males. Within my book, I have historically traced how public education as an institution has a history of using controlling mechanisms that physically and emotionally harm males more so than female counterparts. For example, if we take a look at the use of corporal punishment within public schools, it is evident that males, in the states that continue to utilize corporal punishment, are prone to being punished dramatically more so than females. Looking even closer at race, research has shown that black males are disproportionately punished more than all other males. I feel that the push by school officials to medicate children is simply a continuation of a cycle of control.
SP: Who is ultimately to blame for these problems?
Fitzgerald: There are a lot of variables to discuss… policies, school officials, drug companies and their influences, to racism and the ideal and stereotypes that guide teachers today.
SP: What first caused you to look into these issues?
Fitzgerald: I first was introduced to the topic working as a director of Champaign Park District summer and after-school programs. I began to notice the large number of parents who had given me “meds” to distribute to their children throughout the day. I was perplexed not only at the number of kids on medications such as Ritalin, Adderall, etc., but who was prescribed the meds. Since few blacks were in my camps, the dominant population receiving the meds were white boys. Throughout my doctoral studies on education policies, I had come to realize if a social concern was affecting whites in a dramatic way that it was probably occurring with people of color in a more dramatic fashion. Therefore, I began to investigate the issue to determine what other scholars were noting about my hypothesis. What I found was nothing. Many were discussing the gender differences, but none were mentioning the racial variable.
SP: When did you first discover a trend/pattern?
Fitzgerald: I decided to continue pushing the research. Before I knew it, I had tied this into my doctoral focus. I came to realize that public schools have historically embedded mechanisms for control within their policies and procedures through a variety of means. My doctoral study investigated a moderately sized integrated public school system in an upscale to low socioeconomic central Illinois Big 10 university community in Illinois. Through descriptive measures, I examined the racial ramifications of using psychotropic medications (e.g., Ritalin) to control the undesired academic and social behavior of black school-aged boys. The study examined how the federal policies of Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975, (P.L. 94-142), known presently as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1996, has allowed for the introduction of disproportionate behavioral-stimulant use with black males as a mode for social control. This study situates findings within a larger argument regarding the ways in which racism and reproduction of the racialized social structure, from the inception of the United States through the 21st century, has included a cycle of control targeting blacks, and specifically black males.
SP: How did this develop into an idea for a book?
Fitzgerald: I took my idea to Paradigm Publishing, with the help of my mentor, Dr. Joe Feagin at Texas A&M.
SP: Why do you think black males are disproportionally targeted? Is this entirely an issue of racism? Are there any other factors in play?
Fitzgerald: I feel it is an issue of gender and race. First, we must look at the state of special education. Students who are seen to have either an academic or behavioral concern are branded with labels such as learning, behavioral, mentally and developmentally disabled. These students are disproportionately black males. Many of these children classified with learning or behavior disorders are then prescribed psychotropic medications such as Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall and their other cohorts. These medical interventions, combined with media representations on behalf of the drug companies, illustrate to the public that such treatments could serve as a panacea for school officials and families who are having behavioral concerns about their children, within the home or school setting. This perspective regarding the use of the aforementioned medications can be illustrated within the public school setting. For example, within public school parent-teacher conferences, as well as school meetings pertaining to the child’s learning and behavior difficulties, the use of medication becomes a major focal point of discussion, where teachers’ desires to alleviate the unwanted behavior that halts the students’ pathway to academic success are expressed. Moreover, teachers often assume the role of front line “medical professionals” within these meetings, employing terms such as “hyperactivity,” “fidgetiness” and other phrases to parents in an effort to convince them of the need to medicate their child. Secondly, there is no question that U.S. history is filled with many dreadful examples of the targeting and oppression of black women, including the negative portrayal of black females within the media, patterns of rape and sexual exploitation, disproportionate earnings by gender and governmental policies that negatively affect and alter their lives. Black women’s oppression notwithstanding, black men have arguably faced unique targeting, having been regarded as a more considerable physical and psychological threat to the psyche of whites in general. In this regard, black males have been subjected to an intense measure of control and adversity directed by the hands of whites in the overall system of oppression.
SP: What response have you received from colleagues, the district, other researchers, the community, etc.?
Fitzgerald: That is a funny question. I have received praise and acknowledgement of the issue from the academic community (i.e., universities/colleges), but very few from public schools, specifically from the district in which I work.
SP: What were you hoping would happen with the publication?
Fitzgerald: I am hoping that people begin to reexamine the state of public education and the treatment of marginalized students. I was also hoping that parents and educators would think twice about this concerning issue. The book touches upon the influences of drug companies, polices in government and the impact of race within public education. Therefore, I am hoping that new conversations pertaining to these factors is discussed.
SP: Has any progress been made with these issues?
Fitzgerald: I feel that these issues are still prevalent and occurring. Until we seriously examine the practices of public schools and their practices toward special education students, the cycle will continue in another fashion in the near future.
SP: Do you continue to follow the issues?
Fitzgerald: I still follow a bit, but I am committed to discussing and researching the issues that impact black males in public education. There was actually an article in the New York Times that discussed this topic over the summer. So it is finally getting national attention.