Cough syrup given out with candy at Lansdowne school's 'Trunk or Treat'

Parents are expressing concern after the Lansdowne Middle School PTA handed out samples of a homeopathic cough syrup as part of a promotional bag that included snacks, gift cards and advertisements given to children at the school’s Trunk-or-Treat event last week.

Two days after the Halloween-themed event, the school’s principal sent a letter to parents notifying them of the Hyland’s Cold ’n Cough syrup packets and instructing them to remove them from their child’s possession.

The Oct. 27 letter did not say whether the packets were potentially dangerous. The label on the Hyland’s packet recommends to “Keep this and all medications out of the reach of children.”

The school also placed automated robocalls about the packets to families on Oct. 26.

The county’s public school code prohibits students from possessing prescription and non-prescription drugs at school-sponsored events.

“For a younger child, if the parent wasn’t aware, they would’ve drunk it down,” said Eric McVicker, whose 11-year-old son attends Lansdowne Middle School and received four packets of cough syrup while trick-or-treating at the school event.

“It’s never a good idea to give young children medication unsupervised,” said Adam Spanier, a pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Homeopathic medicines such as Hyland’s are not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration for safety or effectiveness, according to the National Institutes for Health.

The Hyland’s website recommends children younger than 6 take a 5 milliliter dose of cough syrup every four hours. McVicker’s child received four packets of that recommended dose.

Spanier said if a child accidentally took all four packets, the pediatrician would recommend the parents follow the package’s instructions for overdose and call the Poison Control Center.

Lansdowne’s Trunk-or-Treat was advertised as a “safe and fun” way for children to trick-or-treat. Teachers from Lansdowne Elementary School and the middle school decorated their car trunks and handed out candy in the middle school’s parking lot, McVicker said, adding that he saw principals from both schools giving out candy.

The middle school PTA said on its Facebook page that more than 1,100 people attended the event. As many as 300 cough syrup packets were distributed, an organizer estimated.

The Lansdowne Middle School PTA, which decorated a trunk and sold concessions at the event, handed out the promotional bags containing the cough syrup, PTA President Sherry Mihm said.

The bags also had advertisements and coupons, crackers, juice boxes, cheese and gift cards to the food subscription service Hello Fresh, Mihm said.

PTA members knew the cough syrup was in the bags, Mihm said. As the volunteers passed out the bags to children, they advised the children to give some of the contents of the bag — meaning the cough syrup — to their parents, Mihm said.

“When they were handed out, we were telling [the children]: ‘There’s something in there for you and something in there for your parents as well,’” Mihm said.

Mihm said most of the children were trick-or-treating with their parents and that when volunteers indicated there was cough syrup in the packets, many parents told them to put the packets in their child’s Halloween bag of candy “because [the parents will] check it anyway.”

Mihm said the PTA got the packets through PTO Today, a media company for school parent groups. The packets were originally given out this year at an earlier parent back-to-school night. Between 200 and 300 of the packets were left over and the PTA decided to give all the remaining packets out to trick-or-treaters, Mihm said.

John Driscoll, president of PTO Today’s parent company, School Family Media, said the promotional packets are given to PTA groups requesting them. He said when PTA groups sign up, they agree to give packets only to parents at back-to-school nights.

McVicker attended the event with a group of family friends whose children are in elementary school, he said. He said that the parents in his group were taking turns trick-or-treating with the children, and that nobody told him there was cough syrup in his child’s trick-or-treat bag and he did not know who had given it out.

While older children might be able to remember to give the cough syrup to their parents, younger ones are unlikely to have the impulse control needed and could mistake it for candy, Spanier said.

“Asking a young child to take responsibility for any kind of supplement or medicine is not advisable,” Spanier said.

Soon after the event, “the issue was brought to the school’s attention by a few parents,” school system spokesman Mychael Dickerson said. “I do not know how many.”

McVicker said that he and other Lansdowne Middle parents received robocalls from the school on Oct. 26, advising parents to check their children’s candy.

The day after that, parents received the letter from Principal Frank Dunlap, calling their attention to the plastic bags “donated by a community partner” containing the cough syrup.

“We are notifying you to make sure that you check the bags of candy received from the Trunk or Treat and remove this item, and safely discard to ensure it is not in the possession of your student,” Dunlap wrote.

“Moving forward,” Dunlap wrote, “we will ensure that a process is in place to approve all items distributed at our event.”

Requests for the school system to provide further details on that process went unanswered this week.

“We support the principal and PTA's handling of this situation,” Dickerson said in a statement. “Communication was immediate and sent directly to the school community.” He clarified in an email that only Lansdowne Middle School parents were contacted.

Spanier recommended that parents take extra care to make sure children cannot access dangerous items that look like candy, including medicines, vitamins and laundry detergent pods.

“Products that might look like candy should never be around children who might not have control over their impulses,” Spanier said.

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