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Schools doing drug screenings laud benefits for students

As a law requiring Massachusetts schools to conduct drug screenings becomes a reality, several of the 10 districts that already perform the assessments say the evaluations have proven to be a key tool in the early detection of a range of potential substance abuse problems among students.

Wilmington Superintendent Mary DeLai, whose district began assessing 10th-graders three years ago on its own, began screening seventh-graders this year for substance abuse signs. She said the tests were another way for students to discuss their feelings with an adult who will listen.

“If we’re able to prevent students from using substances before the age of 18, then the chance of them developing a substance abuse disorder significantly diminishes,” DeLai said.

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The requirement is part of a measure passed earlier this month that places tighter state controls on opioids. Beginning next year, school districts must screen public school students in two grades yet to be determined by state officials. Parents may opt to exclude their children from the assessment, which would be a verbal screening and not a formal drug test.

The assessment, usually administered by school nurses, asks students whether they have used alcohol, marijuana, nonprescribed pills, or other illegal drugs. It also asks them such questions as whether they’ve ridden in a car driven by someone who was high on drugs or drunk.

Katie Vozeolas, health and nursing services supervisor for the Haverhill School District, said conversations between students and health professionals can lead to trust. Haverhill began to drug screen its first group of students in January.

“We’re learning that the opioid epidemic has been a freight train, and we’re catching up. We have to really get in front of these kids, have these conversations at younger and younger ages, and give them tools to avoid drugs,” Vozeolas said.

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The state hopes the new law and other steps will help counter the deadly scourge of prescription drug and heroin abuse across the state.

Still, not everyone supports the new student-screening requirement. Although screening data would be compiled by the Department of Public Health and would not include children’s names, some civil liberties advocates have questioned how anonymous the results will be.

While $1.1 million has been set aside for initial training of school health professionals, there is no funding provision in the law.

The tests take up to 10 minutes to complete, and parents are notified if a school health professional deems that a child is having a problem with drugs or alcohol. Those students are typically referred to in-school guidance counselors, nurses, or social workers to further discuss the dangers of substance abuse. In rare cases, students are referred to out-of-school services, such as help with drug detoxification.

The need for such outreach has never been greater, officials say, because alcohol and marijuana play a large role in the social lives of many high school students.

According to the Health and Risk Behaviors of Massachusetts Youth study in 2013, 19 percent of high school students admitted to binge drinking in the previous 30 days, and 25 percent said they had used marijuana in the previous month. About 2 percent of those who participated in the study reported using heroin.

Since the screening program began in Gloucester, Northampton, and Hudson schools nearly four years ago, thousands of students have been screened and data from the evaluations have been sent to the DPH, according to Karen Jarvis-Vance, director of health services, health education, and safety for the Northampton school district.

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Jarvis-Vance said that in the past 3½ years, the Northampton district has screened about 1,000 8th- and 9th-graders, with about 2 percent referred to in-school counselors.

“Most kids are not using; we’re not referring large numbers of kids, and mostly we’re having conversations about coping and refusal strategies,” she said.

The DPH, which will work with the state’s education department to bring screenings into all schools, did not respond to requests from the Globe about what the data from screenings around the state had revealed.

Lee Ellenberg,works for the MASBIRT (Massachusetts Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment) program at Boston Medical Center, and he has helped train dozens of public school health professionals over the years.

Ellenberg believes children need a safe place to discuss the pressures of school life and drugs and alcohol. “What’s really important is that students can have a nonjudgmental, noncritical, open conversation with school personnel, with adults, about alcohol and drug use,” he said, “and really talk about it — what the consequences can be, without it being a lecture or being criticized.”


Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.Follow him on twitter @WriteRosenberg.