School staff get substance abuse prevention training

  • Local school faculty attend a training for SBIRT, a new substance abuse screening program now mandated by state law to be practiced in public schools.

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/6/2016 10:07:17 PM

GREENFIELD — The county’s school nurses, guidance counselors and school administrators will soon have a new tool at their disposal to identify students who may have developed substance abuse problems and to get them back on the right track.

With the passage of the state’s landmark painkiller abuse prevention legislation earlier this year, schools will now be required to implement the technique, called Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment, or SBIRT.

The group, which represented staff from each of the county’s school districts, received a full day of training in the program at the Olver Transit Center this week.

All seventh and 10th graders will be screened, but the program would not involve any drug testing, trainers said.

Instead, the nurse, a counselor or a school psychologist would engage the student in conversation to determine if they’ve used drugs or alcohol within the past year, which ones, and how often.

If a student asserts he or she hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol in the past year — then the screener will offer positive reinforcement, aiming to keep them on that path.

If the student admits to using illegal substances, the faculty member will conduct a brief interview to help him or her understand the risks involved with the behavior and decide whether a referral to treatment is needed — either within the school, to a doctor, or to an outside support organization.

Students and parents are able to opt-out of the program, and it will follow best practices for protecting student privacy, trainers said. Confidentiality will only be broken if the screener believes the student is in imminent danger and needs immediate help.

Beverly Heinze-Lacey, the state Department of Public Health’s SBIRT in Schools program coordinator, said the method is designed to be proactive, not reactive.

“We’re not waiting for substance abuse to start, we’re taking a preventative approach,” she said. The opioid abuse bill focuses specifically on the prevention side of efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, which involves prescription painkillers and heroin. “It’s not drug testing and it’s not a treatment program. It’s not to get students in trouble.”

Heinze-Lacey noted many have expressed skepticism as to whether students would tell screeners the truth. She said schools in the eastern part of the state haven’t had many problems with student cooperation, and even if the student does hold back, the meeting still presents an opportunity to engage the student in a conversation about substance abuse, organizers said.

“We hope the positive reinforcement will help the kids who do use reduce or stop,” she said. Enid Watson, a state SBIRT trainer, said the program is introduced as a health screening to destigmatize it, and is usually carried out at the same time as eye or hearing exams.

Currently, about 10 schools statewide are using the program, including Greenfield and Orange in Franklin County.

Hadley’s public schools are in the second year of their program. Renee Denenfield, the school district’s nurse leader, and Carolyn Sorrentino, the school nurse at Hopkins Academy, described their experience to the audience.

Sorrentino said the students are screened in a private room with a white noise machine running to prevent eavesdropping.

She said even with students who are not using substances, the program offers a good chance to let them work through scenarios in which they’re offered drugs. For many, it’s their first chance to practice saying “No.”

Sorrentino said 46 Hopkins sophomores were screened in the first year. Three opted out, while 42 offered positive responses. Eight of them required brief intervention interviews, and just one was referred to a pediatrician.

This year, the program has been expanded to the seventh grade as well.

“Substance abuse is part of a student’s mental health, and they need to have adult support with whatever is going on in their lives,” Denenfield said. “It’s one more way for them to know they have someone who is willing to listen and support them.”

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