New Jersey schools would be required to expand drug-abuse education starting in seventh grade, screen students for potential misuse beginning in ninth grade, and stock opioid antidotes in all high schools based on legislative proposals now under consideration, one of which could soon be signed into law.
State lawmakers unanimously passed a measure in mid-June that requires all school districts to develop a policy for overdose-reversal agents like Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, a substance that has been used more than 43,000 times in New Jersey since 2014. High schools would need to stock the antidote and train the nurse or another official to administer it to anyone in need during school hours or at school events.
“The harsh reality is that opioids are killing thousands of people in this country, many of them young people,” said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), a lead sponsor of the bill, which is now before Gov. Phil Murphy; his office declined to comment on pending legislation. “Narcan has been proven to save lives. Having it readily available in schools can help ensure that our schools are ready to respond in every emergency situation,” Mazzeo added.
In late June, a trio of Assembly Democrats introduced another measure that calls for more extensive instruction about illegal drug use, misuse, and prevention starting in grade seven. The bill — which awaits a hearing — also requires students to learn how to recognize a potential drug overdose and what to do in response, including how to administer an agent like Narcan, if needed.
Lawmakers may also consider a third bill, which was first filed in the previous legislative session but has yet to be considered by a committee. It would ensure that all high school students are screened annually for potential drug misuse and other risky behaviors, and intervene with counseling and treatment referrals if needed. Sen. Joseph Vitale, (D-Middlesex), the sponsor and chair of the health committee, said he aims to push the proposal forward in the fall.
Death toll continues to climb
The legislation comes as the Garden State continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic and its rising death rate. While legal opiate prescriptions have declined in recent years here, more than 2,000 people died of drug-related issues in 2016, based on the most recent figures available. Data suggests more than 3,000 could be killed this year, largely as a result of stronger, more deadly drug cocktails. In addition, some 76,000 people sought treatment last year.
Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, significantly raised awareness about the disease and committed new state resources to treatment and recovery programs. These efforts included greater access to antidotes like Narcan, which comes in an injectable form and as a nasal spray. Murphy has pledged more than $100 million in addiction-related efforts in the new budget, including investments to improve data collection; support community-based providers; and help individuals with housing, job training, and other services.
The school Narcan bill (A-542) calls for the state departments of Education and Human Services, which oversee most addiction programs, to establish regulations to guide public, private, and parochial school leaders in developing policy for the use and possible storage of overdose antidotes. High schools would be required to purchase and stock the reversal agent in a secure, but unlocked site. They can also determine if the nurse or another leader would be trained to administer the antidote to students, staff, and visitors in need. Middle and elementary schools could also opt to keep supplies on hand.
In addition, the measure — also sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) and Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) — provides immunity for the nurse or others trained to administer the antidote and updates other laws to reflect that change.
Budgeting for overdose reversal
According to nonpartisan legislative analysis, equipping the state’s roughly 500 high schools with the antidote kits — which cost as little as $20 a dose, or as much as $4,500 for a two-pack with an auto-injection feature — will cost between $10,000 and $20,000. While nonpublic schools can use state funding they receive for nursing programs to help cover this cost, public schools would be responsible for these expenses.
The newest proposal (A-4271) — introduced in late June by Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex) and Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) — would require public school students in grades seven through 12 to learn about the use and misuse of opioids, including the dangers of abuse and the connection to legal prescriptions, as well as ways to help prevent addiction. The program would also teach how to recognize an overdose and what to do in response, including the use of various reversal agents. It does not appear to apply to private or parochial schools.
According to the bill, the current requirements are based on a 1987 law that orders public schools to provide “age-appropriate” instruction on alcohol and drugs, including steroids and tobacco, in each grade, starting in kindergarten. State statute also requires schools to establish comprehensive prevention, intervention, and referral programs for students with alcohol, tobacco, or other drug risks, according to the state Department of Education website.
Vitale’s proposal (S-2967) — also sponsored by Ruiz, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden) — would strengthen the screening protocols for public and nonpublic high schools in an effort to identify students at risk for drug or alcohol abuse. Nearly one-third of high school students have been offered, given, or sold an illegal drug on school property, according to the bill, and the majority of those with substance-use disorders began experimenting before they turned 18.
The bill calls for the school nurse, psychologist, or other trained professional to administer verbal or written tests to each student annually, using a proven model called SBIRT, for Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment. The tool has been used with adults in emergency departments and community clinics in New Jersey, where it has been shown to reduce risky behavior, the legislation notes.
If the screening reveals a risk, the administrator would provide a short counseling session and offer referrals for further treatment, if needed. A school official would also be required to notify the parents in writing of any concerns. All student responses would be kept confidential and parents, who would be notified of the process in advance, could chose to exempt their children from the screening.