Legislature Proposes Mandatory Depression Screening in Schools

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Yesterday, at the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee, considered legislation that would mandate that all students in grades 7 through 12 be annually screened for depression.  The bill, A-3926 as amended in Committee, provides that qualified professionals, defined as school psychologists, school nurses, school counselors, student assistant coordinators, school social workers of the school physician shall administer the test.  The legislation also promises to address student anxiety issues through a similar screening tool in the future.

The bill did not designate a specific screening tool, but Assembly Health Chairman Herb Conaway, discussed a specific screening tool that was brief, merely 2 questions, readily available and free to districts.   The amended bill language provides that a “brief questionnaire, consisting of two to four questions” will be provided for students to complete annually in a private setting in the school.  The Chairman of the Department of Health is to select the instrument.  Both the Department of Health and Education are to develop standards on the procedures to be used through implementing regulations.

A-3926  applies all student confidentiality laws and protections set forth in state and federal law.  It does mandate that boards of education collect and forward the aggregate data to the Departments of Education and Health with the individual identifying information on students removed.  The purpose of this requirement is for these departments to identify statewide health trends concerning teen depression and develop statewide initiatives in response.

If a student’s screening results in a finding of a “suspected deviation from the recommended standard,” the superintendent or his/her designee is to notify the parent or guardian.  The superintendent shall inform the parent that “the screening is not a diagnosis” and shall encourage the parent to share the results with the student’s primary care physician.

The day began with a press conference by the bill sponsors, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Senator Troy Singleton.  They discussed the alarming rise in the rate of student depression and teen suicide in our country, a trend NJPSA members have been addressing in recent years.  While supportive of the positive intent of this legislation, NJPSA raised significant concerns with the legislation as proposed. NJPSA Director of Government Relations testified at length raising concerns about the screening tool, school capacity and expertise to perform this screening, parental notice and consent requirements, school responsibility for follow-up, treatment and liability, student response and cooperation, student privacy and funding implications.  Chairman Conaway, a physician himself, has agreed to meet with the school community to discuss our concerns.

The Assembly Health Committee favorably released from committee, but there were significant questions raised and several negative or abstention votes.  It is uncertain whether the legislation will move to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration or to second reading for a potential floor vote.

Please reach out to the NJPSA Government Relations staff to discuss your views, any information you can provide concerning cost impacts at your school and recommendations on this important legislation.  Please email dbradley@njpsa.org or jlamon@njpsa.org.