During the spring of the 2017 school year, Walpole Public Schools began to implement a new screening for students in the seventh grade.
The state of Massachusetts mandated this screening, known as Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), and it will be mandatory for all public schools in Massachusetts at the start of the next school year; however, Walpole volunteered to start a preliminary program this spring, interviewing students at both Bird and Johnson Middle School.
“Walpole, being a proactive community, opted to a pilot program in grade seven this year,” said Bird Middle School nurse Karen Doherty. SBIRT is a five minute interview with one of Walpole’s school nurses, where students are asked questions concerning substance abuse.
“The types of questions we discuss are about their access to alcohol, beer and wine in the past year. We ask them questions in a form of ‘have you ever done this,’ and those are regarding alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, and getting in a car with an intoxicated driver,” said Doherty.
SBIRT is a confidential and anonymous screening, as the state only requires schools to report a student’s sex, age, and their responses to questions.
“We tell them before that there are no names, no identifying characteristics with anything we do,” said Walpole High School nurse Rachel Jackson. “I think for them to hear that it is confidential, it opens up the line of communication.”
Although screenings are confidential, students who report answers that are considered concerning to the screener have the option to sign a consent form, which can be used to refer them to another adult.
“If we are concerned for the student’s safety or others safety, then we ask for their permission to share the information, so we can refer them to their parents or the school guidance counselors, depending on our severity of concern” said Jackson.
The interviewing at the seventh grade level is optional, allowing both parents to opt their student out of screening, as well as giving students the ability to refuse to participate in the interview.
“There is no penalty for opting out, and the parents have the opportunity to opt out their kids out, which is why we have an informational meeting and letters sent home,” said Jackson. “Some parents did opt their kids out, but I think there will be less next year, because I think kids are really getting something out of it.”
In order to promote delay of substance abuse, screeners praise those who test negative to any use of illegal substances.
“It’s positive reinforcement that we want to give to the kids who answered ‘no’ to the questions,” said Jackson. “and the real gist of [screenings] is early intervention, and really trying to get kids to understand that if they postpone using a substance that impairs them, the difference in the chance of becoming addicted is huge.”
Preparations for SBIRT began at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, where an individual sent from the state trained Doherty, Jackson, Johnson Middle School nurse Susan Prindall, and nurse leader Kathleen Garvin.
“I think it was great for us to start this year before it was mandated so we can work out the kinks,” said Jackson.
Next year, when the program is mandatory in all Massachusetts school districts, screeners will complete interviews with seventh and ninth grade; however, all students will still have the ability to opt out from the screening.
“I think next year will be easier because the preliminary groundwork has been laid this year. I would like to see more staff trained. We need more screeners; it will be hard for the four of us to do two grades next year,” said Doherty.
Going forward, WPS hopes to spread awareness of the consequences that come from underage alcohol drug usage.
“We have to tell them that they are going to be exposed to this, and encourage them to make good decisions,” said Doherty. “Going to high school and going to college, this stuff is going to be out there, so I tell them this a chance for them to understand that they don’t want to get involved with substance abuse.”