High school students in New Jersey might be falling victim to drug abuse and their parents may not even know it.

That's why the chairman of the state Senate Health Committee, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, believes the answer is to screen students for substance abuse.

He’s working on a plan that calls for all high schools students — in public, private and charters — to be voluntarily screened every year for substance abuse.

“We would train substance abuse counselors, guidance counselors, the certified school nurse, they’d be trained to identify certain things that a student might be undergoing or to identify possible abuse,” he said.

Vitale explained if a red flag did show up, and some kind of substance abuse issue did surface, “the school would offer, and only offer, direction and help for counseling and treatment and recovery, and it would be a referral type of a process.”

He also stressed the program would be completely voluntary.

“We would certainly allow parents to opt out if they didn’t want their student screened for that, but we think it’s worked in other places, and it’s helped students with recovery,” he said.

Protecting privacy

Vitale said information uncovered in the assessment, which might be written or verbal, would not be shared with the police or anybody else.

“It’s absolutely confidential. This is between the student and their parent or their guardian. This is not public information, this is all protected,” he said.

“And nothing is mandated, nothing is required, no one gets in trouble. It’s just that we want to be able to help identify these students because the problem does exist.”

He said “there are probably several thousand students in this state that are, at some level, abusing drugs, whether it’s prescription opiods or others, and their parents or guardians are not aware of it. It’s happening in high schools, it’s happening in middle schools, it’s happening in grades you would never think it would happen in.”

He added we know the heroin epidemic is being fueled by kids using and abusing painkiller medication and everything possible must be done to change the current situation.

“They are prescribed it or they get it from their friends or they find it in the medicine cabinet and that is really the way many kids, many minors find their first opiod — they see it, they use it, they like it, and their addiction is off to the races,” he said.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the NJEA is in the process of reviewing the proposal.

He said right now the NJEA does not have a formal position on the idea but the state's largest teachers union “is very committed to making sure that every student in New Jersey has a safe, healthy learning environment."

"We want to see the best interest of students taken care of. We want to make sure they’re in the best position to be able to learn. That’s very important to our members.”

Vitale said the Senate Health Committee will hold a hearing on the proposal Monday afternoon at the Statehouse.

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