Legislation Would Screen HS Students Yearly for Addiction

By Erin Delmore

The challenge? Stem New Jersey’s drug addiction crisis at its roots. Sen. Joe Vitale thinks it can be done by screening high school students yearly for addiction. A bill he introduced this week gives that responsibility to school officials including nurses and counselors.

He explained, “They would talk to the student and interview them about their lives during the process — a way to get an idea of whether or not the student is abusing drugs or is at risk of doing so.”

If that’s true, Vitale says, the school official would have a discussion with the student and, if it’s serious, speak with the parent or guardian and refer the student to treatment.

Dana Karas, president of the New Jersey Counselor Association, said, “Initially when you look at the bill, it makes a lot of sense. We definitely know that in the state of New Jersey students and young adult experimenting and utilizing drugs and alcohol in excess. When you look at it a little closely, you then start to notice that again this is going to be another one of those other unfunded mandates.”

Karas says she’s concerned about the tool used to screen students, whether it’s standardized across school districts and whether training is provided for administrators.

“So, unless the state was going to implement a standard protocol and tool, I really highly doubt that the information would be valid,” said Karas.

“It’s been done in other states. I went to Gloucester, Mass. last year and observed a program that was run by the city of Gloucester. It was really effective. They did it in schools and they did it as a community. They were literally able to identify hundreds of residents, and some students, who were at risk or already abusing and misusing drugs,” said Vitale.

Vitale has shepherded a slew of bills aimed at stemming New Jersey’s opioid addiction crisis. But parents, school counselors and students doubt how effective this one would be.

Branchburg resident, Lisa Cassell, explained, “Kids aren’t going to be honest with the counselor, because if they are honest then is there going to be a next step for them — repercussions from saying that they are addicted to drugs.”

“I would think after the first handful of students were being called down, they would know exactly why they were being called down to the office. Many of them would not tell the truth or would provide some alternative to the truth,” said Karas.

Under Vitale’s bill, parents would have the right to waive their son or daughter from participating.

Vitale told NJTV News the addiction screening program would not involve law enforcement and the findings would be kept confidential. His legislation focuses on all public and private high schools in the state. He said he’d eventually like to expand it to middle schools as well.