Tuesday night, the School Committee approved a policy for screening middle and high school students to see if they are using drugs or alcohol.
Known as SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment), the screening will be required for all schools in Massachusetts, said Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness and Extended Services for the Watertown Public Schools. She told the School Committee about the screenings during a special School Committee meeting Monday night (see the slide presentation here).
The screenings will be verbal ones, and will be done in seventh and ninth grades, Ruseckas said. The purpose is to catch drug and alcohol use early, so that it does not become a further problem.
National data shows that 32 percent of people who started drinking at age 15 went on to become alcoholics, Ruseckas said, compared to just 9 percent of those who started at age 21.
The first time students reported drinking spikes in their late teens, according to the data, as does smoking tobacco or using marijuana.
During the confidential screenings, students will be asked 10 questions, related to drinking and drug use while in a car or driving, when they are used to relax, and when alone, Ruseckas said. They will also be asked if they become forgetful when using drugs or drinking, if family or friends have asked about their substance use or if they have gotten in trouble for doing so.
The questions are a part of a screening called CRAFFT (Car, Relax, Alone, Family Friends, Trouble). More information is available at www.crafft.org.
If a student answers yes to two or more questions, it may indicate a problem, and they will be referred for further assessment, Ruseckas said.
Parents and guardians will be notified before the screenings are done, and they can opt out of their child going through the screening, Ruseckas said. Students, too, can opt out.
School Committee member Eileen Hsu-Balzer, said she worried about students opting out.
“Students with substance abuse issues are the ones most likely to opt out,” Hsu-Balzer said.
School Committee member Candace Miller said that children use drug and alcohol for many reasons. Sometimes it is because they are having family problems, or are struggling with gender or sexual identification, and even because of sexual abuse.
“I hope we are making sure we are prepared to help students any way they need it,” Miller said.
The district will report the statistics results of the screenings to the state, Ruseckas said, but names won’t be shared.
The School Committee unanimously approved the policy at a meeting Tuesday night.