Massachusetts Student Drug Screening Program Could Move Statewide

By McCarton Ackerman 07/29/15

The screening process is already being tested by eight schools across the state.

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Massachusetts has already set itself up this year as a pioneer state for coming up with new ways to address drug abuse, but child advocates in the state are now trying to further that trend by pushing for every public school student in the state to be screened for substance use.

The proposed screenings would be done once for every student in middle school and twice in high school, and would simply be an addition to the other forms of screening already done by school nurses. The screening process is already being tested by eight schools across the state and another seven districts will also begin incorporating them in the fall. A hearing will also be held this week by lawmakers to make the program stateside.

The screening was created in part by Dr. Sharon Levy, medical director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s a brief written survey that takes only a minute to complete, simply asking students how many times they’ve had alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco in the past year. They can choose one of five options to answer with: never, once or twice, monthly, weekly, or more.

Occasional use (monthly or less) may warrant a one-on-one with the school nurse who administered the survey. For use that was weekly or even more frequent, it would be considered a severe substance use problem. A school nurse and possibly a guidance counselor would develop a plan for treatment, but each school district would set their own protocol about when to notify parents or make referrals for treatment.

But even in the early stages of the program, it’s already been noted that very few seventh to ninth graders have a serious substance abuse problem.

“In about 10% of the cases there is brief counseling, that the individual reports that they have used alcohol or have used marijuana,” said Mary McGeown, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “In a very, very small percentage of those 10%, really 1 or 2%, there’s a referral to treatment. It’s at that point a parent would be called.”

Screening every student in the state will cost about $2.5 million in the first year, but it’s expected that amount will drop once all school nurses are trained on the protocol.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.