Drugs with high potential for abuse going missing at Mass. public schools

Drugs with high potential for abuse going missing at Mass. public schools

From insulin and antibiotics to antidepressants and stimulants, there is an ample supply of prescription drugs in the school nurse's office. Massachusetts school nurses administer roughly 84,000 doses of prescription medications to students each month.

But as 25 Investigates' Ted Daniel uncovered some of those medication are disappearing from the school nurse's office. He spoke to a mother who says not only did her son's pills disappear, but they were replaced with another medication, putting him at risk.

"In my son's afternoon bottle were six pills that didn't match what was written on the bottle," said the South Shore mother, who did not want to be identified to protect her son's privacy. "And I said I have no idea what those pills are, but they are not his. I was just floored."

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Her son was a third-grader at Kingston Intermediate School when, she says, she discovered the discrepancy.  His doctor had prescribed him two daily doses of the stimulant Adderall to treat his Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD.

"There were six other pills that did not belong in that bottle, and it was medicine that he was never prescribed. Ever!"

Instead of Adderall, she says the school nurse gave him Focalin, a different drug used to treat ADD. The tablets are very similar in color and size.

Upon realizing the error, she requested her son's medicine log from the school, and she used it to recreate his medication history – the number of pills she dropped off, dates she dropped them off and number of doses he should have received from the school nurse.  She says a quick examination of the log soon revealed her son had not received his medication for five consecutive days, allegedly because he had run out of pills. But, by mom's count he should have had an adequate supply.

"You start losing your mind because you are like ‘there is no way I can be out already.' But you know you have to keep turning them in because they say you are out (of pills)."

She reported the discrepancies to school administrators and police. She wanted to know why her son had not gotten his medication for a week and what was happening to his supply.

25 Investigates obtained the police report. It shows investigators spoke to the child's pharmacist who confirmed "he had never filled Dexmethylphenidate Hydrochloride 2.5 mg also known as Focalin…..and had no records that it had ever been prescribed to him."  The pharmacist also confirmed that "his pharmacy did not stock that specific dosage of Focalin and that it is not a medication that would be substituted for [the child's] regular prescription of Adderall." The discrepancy was detected and reported in May by a substitute nurse, after the staff nurse went on leave.

According to police records obtained through a Public Records Request, this was not the first time medication has gone missing at Kingston Intermediate School.  We found two other incidents involving the school nurse.

In December 2018 another family reported that their son "received the wrong medication from the school nurse Marie Provenzano." The pill he had been given "was cut in half and was white. The medication [he] was supposed to receive should be yellow." The report goes on to state that the child's parent "brought in 20 pills right after Thanksgiving and that he should have 8 pills remaining and found that the pill container only contained 6 pills."  The report also shows police concluded the matter was only a record-keeping error.

A police report from 2014 shows that Kingston Police questioned the same nurse as a witness about missing pills after "the pill count for a student's methylphen (Ridalin) was not correct and one was missing.… and another student was missing one Adderall pill."

Police reports from both incidents indicate that police eventually concluded that "No Crime Was Involved."

Across the state, 21 schools have reported possible lost or stolen medications to the Department of Public Health (DPH) since 2017. Schools are required to report when the loss or theft involves a controlled substance, like Ritalin or Adderall. But we found that the decision to report is largely up to individual schools.

According to data obtained from DPH, Kingston Intermediate School did not report the two most recent incidents. It is worth noting that the DPH data 25 Investigates reviewed only went back to 2017.

A drug diversion expert we consulted with for this story says that ample supply and easy access to drugs at the school nursing office is "creating a witch's brew for them to access these drugs."

Robert Lord is the President of Protenus, a Baltimore-based company that tracks and prevents clinical drug misuse and abuse. He says pill theft at schools is often overlooked.

"These are high stress jobs where they have easy access to medications," said Lord, adding that schools need to implement tighter controls and greater accountability. "One thing that we see really anecdotally is what is publicly reported is just the tip of the iceberg. What gets in the news, what gets to law enforcement is just one percent or less of what's really happening."

A quick scan of recent national headlines reveals drug loss or theft at schools is widespread. Just last month, a nurse in Tennessee was charged with three counts of theft for stealing Focalin and Adderall from high school students, and in March and elementary school nurse in Indiana admitted to pocketing ADD pills and replacing them with baby aspirin.  Last year, a Georgia school nurse was accused of stealing from as many as 17 students at an elementary school.

25 Investigates tried to speak with Marie Provenzano, the nurse who oversaw Kingston Intermediate School's nursing office when medications intended for students went missing. We tried reaching her at her Plymouth home, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach her via email. A woman we saw enter the home just moments before we rang the bell did not answer the door.

"My gut is telling me that the person I trusted shifted the pills around and then covered their tracks so nobody could figure out what actually was going on," said the mom of the third-grader at Kingston Intermediate whose pills went missing. "It's infuriating because school is not easy for him. To think that the possibility exists that somebody had a hand in affecting his school work and the confidence within himself."

In an email, the Superintendent of the Silver Lake Regional School District, which Kingston Intermediate School is a part of, confirmed that Provenzano no longer works for the district and the administration is reviewing policies related to missing medications. But 25 Investigates has learned that the Board of Nursing is actively investigating a complaint against Provenzano.

In a statement Superintendent Joy Blackwood added:

The safety and security of our students is always a prime concern of our administration and staff.  Whenever there are incidents that are of concern regarding safety the schools do a thorough and complete investigation and appropriate action is taken.  We have an excellent working relationship with all our local police and fire departments and work in conjunction with them to resolve situations of concern. Specific incidents regarding students cannot be discussed due to FERPA and personnel issues cannot be discussed due to privacy laws.  Our objective is to provide a safe and secure environment where our students can focus on learning the skills needed for a successful educational experience.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated version of the story to include further detail from the Kingston Police reports cited in our original story.