Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
A half-dozen Kentucky school districts are piloting a program that helps them identify and support students who are struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, or are at risk for them.
Launched late last spring as a joint program between the Kentucky Department of Education and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the School-Based Substance Abuse Screening Initiative uses a series of narrowly focused questions that students answer, producing a risk assessment about their mental health, substance abuse, and tendencies toward crime and violence. The tool is called the GAIN Short Screener, the acronym standing for Global Appraisal of Individual Needs.
The idea is to identify students early and get them the help they need. “If a kid is already an addict by the time they become an adult, it is very hard to straighten their lives out,” said Patrick Bowlin, pupil personnel director at Whitley County Schools, one of the pilot districts.
Students have nonacademic barriers as well as academic ones, noted Amy Ramage, pupil personnel director for Livingston County Schools, another pilot district, “so we know we’ve got to address those needs before we can really go full force academically and expect great things of them.”
The screener takes the guesswork out of providing support for students, said Connie Pohlgeers, director of school improvement and community education for Campbell County Schools, which also is trying out the screening.
“For us, the screener has been a wonderful tool for us to analyze data, to make judgments that are rooted in data and not just what our gut is telling us,” she said. “It also gives us time to really sit down with the students that are presenting with social or emotional, or substance abuse needs.”
The initiative is funded with $1 million that was set aside, at the urging of first lady Jane Beshear, from the state’s $32 million settlement with two pharmaceutical companies.
The funding will be used to train the school employees who will administer the screening, said Tommy Floyd, the state education department’s chief of staff. Districts are partnering with their local community mental health agency to provide help for students flagged through the screening. Floyd said districts are not obligated to spend money on such treatment.
The screening is given to at-risk middle and high school students. Not all those flagged for help as a result of the screening will require outside services; some may be able to receive help from school counselors. Districts are identifying students for screening in different ways: Campbell County is screening all students enrolling for the first time in its alternative school and those whom counselors have concerns about. In Whitley County, students are identified for screening based on behavior, attendance and family life, Bowlin said. There is no stigma attached, he said, because like anything else involving individual students, it is confidential.
The screening ran into a hiccup last year when some districts had concerns about the mental health portion of the questions, along with their bearing on special education services, Floyd said. Some pilot districts put the screening on hold at that point pending more guidance from the two state agencies. Floyd said the guidance is forthcoming and that districts will have to decide how far they want to go with the screening – for only substance abuse or for all the areas. However, he noted that it’s difficult to separate one issue from the other.
Pohlgeers said Campbell County wants to go the full route so the district can help students who also have mental health needs. “We want to make sure we are definitely looking at the whole picture of a child,” she said. “We feel like in order for them to be successful in the classroom, we have to make sure they have a healthy view of themselves and of society.”
Another challenge the pilot districts have faced is getting parental consent for their children to go through the screening after they are identified for it. In Whitley County, for example, 100 students were identified for screening this school year, but only a quarter of those could be screened because parental consent could not be obtained for the rest.
“A lot of parents, I think, are afraid their kids are going to get punished if they give permission, or the parents are going to get punished,” Bowlin said. “And that’s not the goal of the pilot. We’re not trying to punish anybody.”
Ramage said it takes a personal conversation with parents, explaining to them “that it’s simply to make sure we’re providing all the services we can to our students and to remove any of those barriers, and to let them know it’s simply a screening and those results will be shared with the parent.”
Pohlgeers said Campbell County screeners have even made home visits to try to get parental consent.
Another variable is the truthfulness of the students themselves in answering the questions in the screening. “It’s not a perfect tool because kids aren’t perfect and they’re not always going to tell you everything. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Pohlgeers said.
Floyd said his department and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services will continue to monitor the pilot districts to see how well the screening works, get more feedback and provide more guidance. At some point, a decision would be made about opening the program to other school districts. School boards that are interested should be thinking about lining up community partners to help students who are screened, Floyd said, as well as making sure the district has policies and procedures to support the screening.
Pilot districts in screening program