Pubdate: Sun, 27 Mar 2016
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2016 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Steven A. Rosenberg


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.

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.

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.

'We're learning the opioid epidemic has been a freight train, and 
we're catching up. We have to get in front of these kids, have these 
conversations at younger ages.'

Jarvis-Vance said that in the past 31/2 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."
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