Press of Atlantic City

Vitale Proposes Substance Abuse Screening For All High School Students

Press of Atlantic City — January 24, 2017

DIANE D'AMICO Staff Writer

TRENTON — Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vitale, D-Middlesex, has introduced legislation that would require school districts, charter schools and nonpublic schools to provide for an annual written or verbal substance use screening on each high school student.

The legislation is intended to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic in New Jersey.

In a press release issued by Senate Democrats Vitale said: "Research tells us that the vast majority of individuals 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."

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. The SBIRT program uses evidence-based practices to identify, reduce, and prevent problematic use, abuse, and dependence on alcohol and illicit drugs, and guides early intervention and treatment for individuals with substance use disorders or those at risk of developing them.

Screenings at a school district or charter school would be conducted by a certified student assistance coordinator, a school nurse, a school counselor, a school social worker, or a school psychologist. Screenings at nonpublic schools would be conducted by a licensed health care professional.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 percent of New Jersey high school students have been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone on school property.

"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."

If a student screens positive for potential substance misuse, the person administering the screening would be required to provide brief intervention using motivational interviewing and assist the student with referral to treatment options, if needed. The Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families, using existing public and private training resources, would make available training for personnel using the SBIRT program.

Maura Collinsgru, Health Care Program Director at New Jersey Citizen Action who heads a coalition working to advance youth SBIRT in New Jersey, supported the measure and universal screenings in schools will enable school nurses or counselors to detect risk for substance use related problems in young people that might otherwise go undetected.

Under the provisions of the bill, the parent or guardian of a student being screened must be given prior written notice of the screening and an opportunity to have the student opt out of the screening. Additionally, statements made by a student during a screening are considered confidential information and cannot be disclosed by a person receiving the statement to any other person without the prior consent of the student and the student's parent or guardian, except in cases of immediate medical emergency or if disclosure is otherwise required by State law.

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 and provides to the Department of Education a detailed description of the alternative program and the reasons why the SBIRT program is not appropriate for its use.

The legislation also directs the State Board of Education, in conjunction with the Commissioner of Human Services, to promulgate regulations to effectuate the provisions of this bill, including standards pursuant to which a Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment program is conducted.

The potential cost of the screenings and how they would be funded was not immediately available.

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