TRENTON — The chairman of the state Senate Health Committee has introduced legislation that would require public school districts, charter schools and nonpublic schools to provide annual substance-use screening for each high school student.
The legislation is intended to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic in New Jersey, and is similar to legislation approved by Massachusetts in 2016.
The screening would be in a questionnaire format only. Parents could have their child opt out of the screening, but supporters hope they can demonstrate it is beneficial in helping to identify at-risk students before they become addicted.
“The goal is to catch students in the early throes of addiction,” said Maura Collinsgru, health care program director at New Jersey Citizen Action. “It’s a way for students to let someone know that they are having difficulty or are making decisions that put them at risk.”
According to the 2013 New Jersey Student Health Survey, 39 percent of students responding had at least one alcoholic drink in the previous 30 days and 23 percent had five or more drinks in a row.
In addition, 39 percent had tried marijuana at least once, 21 percent has used it in the previous 30 days and 5 percent had first used it before the age of 13.
Sen. Joseph F. Vitale, D-Middlesex, said in a statement that research shows a majority of people who develop a substance-use disorder began using before they turned 18.
“Screening for risk factors or red flags during the high school years will provide an opportunity for early intervention and might help to prevent addiction before it even begins,” he said.
Under the bill, the screenings would assess a student’s risk for substance abuse using the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Screenings would be done by a student assistance coordinator, a school nurse, counselor, social worker or psychologist. Screenings at nonpublic schools would be conducted by a licensed health care professional.
If a student screens positive for potential substance misuse, the person administering the screening would be required to provide brief intervention and assist the student with referral to treatment options, if needed.
Collinsgru said a statewide coalition has been working for three years to advance youth SBIRT in New Jersey. She said Massachusetts, New York and Ohio are already implementing student screening as a way to start conversations with at-risk students. All information remains confidential.
Typical questions would ask whether a student had drunk any alcohol or used marijuana or prescription drugs to get high. Collingsgru said students are generally honest and can use the survey as a way to reach out for help.
“It’s not punitive,” she said. “It’s a way to put them on a more positive path.”
A school district, charter school or nonpublic school can opt out of the SBIRT program, according to the bill, if it is implementing an alternative screening program.
The potential cost of the screenings and how they would be funded was not immediately available. Collingsgru said the questionnaire itself is inexpensive and the only additional cost would be for training and implementation.
She said the cost to implement the program in Massachusetts is about $20 per student, which would translate to about $7 million a year for an estimated 350,000 high school students in New Jersey.
“Drugs and alcohol contribute to the three leading causes of teen deaths,” Vitale said in the statement. “By having trained professionals on hand and ready to recognize the early indicators of substance use and screening our youth during their critical high school years, with the necessary privacy protections, we can have a better chance at fighting the drug crisis in New Jersey.”