Bill calls for student screenings in schools to curb drug abuse
The state Senate is expected to vote next week on a bill that would require all public school districts in Massachusetts to screen seventh and 10th graders for potential drug use, with an eye toward stemming the scourge of opioid abuse at an early stage.
The screenings would not involve drug tests. Rather, the screener — who could be a school nurse or psychologist trained in speaking to kids about drug use — would determine through a conversation if the student was engaged in risky behavior, according to a Senate briefing for reporters on the proposal.
The intent is to identify students who need help “and to try to move them in a way that they will want to go into treatment. You can’t force them,” said Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan, Democrat of Leominster, the main backer of the provision.
Students or parents would be able to opt out of the screening. Parents wouldn’t be immediately notified of the screening results, and the bill would work to protect students’ privacy, Flanagan said. Parents would be notified only in the most extreme cases of dependence or addiction, according to a Flanagan aide.
Updated wording of the bill, which will be subject to amendment, was not publicly available Thursday and was still being scrutinized by Senate’s legal office. The final version senators vote on could look very different.
Flanagan said a lot of young people have said to her and her colleagues: “If someone had asked, if someone had known, if I had a chance to say, ‘I needed help,’ ” it might have diverted them from the path of addiction.
The senator did not make clear under which circumstances the screeners would be compelled to notify authorities about children they screened.
The program, referred to as SBIRT — Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment — is currently used in 10 Massachusetts public schools, Flanagan said.
Hadley Public Schools began a pilot program last year, training its nurses and counselors in the screening methods and applying them to 10th-grade students, said Renee Denenfeld, nurse leader for the school district. This year the program expanded to include seventh-graders as well as 10th-graders.
Denenfeld said the program had been embraced by the community. The Hadley School Department sent letters to parents detailing the questions their children would be asked and instructing them on how to opt out of the screening, but no families chose to exclude their children, she said.
“It gave students an opportunity to ask the nurses questions . . . and let them know that we not only take care of physical complaints, but we are there for their emotional and their mental health as well,” Denenfeld said. “I think it’s an important piece of health screening.”
Flanagan said there would be state funding for schools to train screeners, but did not specify the cost associated with the program.
Senators and aides did not know whether other states had adopted similar screening mandates for schools.
Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni said in a statement that the increase in the use of opioids is a huge concern.
“Schools can play an important role in making sure students have access to treatment and counseling, but it has to be done right,” she said. “We’re very interested in learning more about the specifics of this bill.”
The bill is set to include several other provisions aimed at prevention, according to Senator John F. Keenan, a Democrat from Quincy.
They include mandating doctors who prescribe certain extended-release, long-acting opioids document justification for why they are doing so; requiring insurance companies to provide doctors and the public information about pain-management alternatives to opioids; and allowing people to voluntarily put themselves on a do-not-prescribe list for opioids, with exceptions for emergencies.
An earlier version of the bill that included a screening provision appeared to garner concern from two key players in moving any legislation forward into law: Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Governor Charlie Baker.
Responding to a general question about drug screenings at middle schools and high schools, DeLeo, a Democrat, indicated that the Legislature would have to look at potential constitutional concerns vis-a-vis students’ rights.
Baker, a Republican, said that when it comes to dealing with the opioid crisis, he’s willing to listen to almost anything people come up with. But as for required screenings, Baker said at a Politico event, he does not “really like that idea very much.”
Aides said the Senate is poised to vote on the legislation, backed by Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg, on Oct. 1.
Beacon Hill leaders have made addressing the opioid abuse crisis a priority.
In a statement, Baker spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said that the governor “appreciates efforts by the Legislature to put forth meaningful proposals aimed to reduce opioid abuse.”
Guyton said Baker will file legislation in the coming weeks based on recommendations from his Opioid Working Group, a panel of specialists who released proposals to address the scourge earlier this year.
Among the recommendations of that group was increasing the use of screenings in schools to identify youths who are at risk “for behavioral health issues,” but there was no mention of a mandate on all school districts.
The governor has already filed a bill, pending in the Legislature, that would boost spending on drug abuse treatment and prevention by $28 million.
Massachusetts has recently seen a startling uptick in unintentional opioid overdose deaths. The state Department of Public Health said during the summer that an estimated 1,256 Massachusetts residents died from opioid overdoses in 2014, a sharp increase from 2013 and 2012.