PITTSFIELD — School staffers from across the county took turns "interviewing" one another last week — one role-playing as a student — about drug and alcohol use.
As the interviewer pressed on, it was the "student's" job to cop to regular substance use and other risky behaviors.
The training, overseen by a pair of state Department of Public Health workers, was conducted in advance of a new program required by state legislation designed to assess early drug and alcohol use by students.
The technique is designed to be a more sympathetic approach, first listening then using methods of gentle persuasion. It's a far cry from demonization and prohibition, which research has found only alienates the child and makes the behavior more alluring.
"It's not a confrontation; rather allowing them to open up and talk," said Joan Roy, nurse leader for Pittsfield Public Schools. "If a student tells you they smoke pot every single day, you don't respond in a negative or derogatory way. You ask them what they like and dislike about the experience."
The confidential, one-on-one meetings between students and school staff will be a key feature in the new approach, interviews modeled after a program called Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT).
Under legislation signed in March by Gov. Baker, the student screenings will be implemented in the fall in Pittsfield Public Schools, and later in the year in the rest of the county. The target population is seventh- through 10th-graders. Parents may opt their children out if they so choose.
State Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, who last fall proposed the bill that in part mandated these screenings, said the intent was to identify students who need help "and to try to move them in a way that they will want to go into treatment. You can't force them."
Opioid abuse has hit crisis levels in the state and across the country. In 2011, 4.2 million people in the United States age 12 or older reported using heroin at least once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes that "about 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it."
Ten Massachusetts public school districts used SBIRT-styled programs prior to 2015, including Hadley and Northampton, which reported favorable responses from students and parents. Monument Mountain Regional High School also began using a similar program last year.
Findings show the program leads to successful intervention in some cases and students answer questions honestly.
State Department of Public Health personnel visited Pittsfield Boys & Girls Club on Thursday and Friday, where they engaged nurses, administrators, guidance and adjustment councilors and other employees from local public schools in training. Staffers from Pittsfield, Williamstown and North Adams schools participated. The Baker administration provided thousands of dollars to fund the local training.
"It's one more tool to help keep people from starting down paths that can derail their lives and the lives of their loved ones," said Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless. "Nothing is a catch-all, but the easiest way to deal with an issue is to prevent it happening in the first place. When given the opportunity, young people tend to be very reflective and honest."
Ninth-graders will be the first swath of the city's student population to participate in the program this fall. Roy said interviews of each of the roughly 300 students will be completed over five to seven days. Other districts may lag behind in implementation, but all will follow step before the end of next school year.
"We're not going to tell parents about this conversation unless we hear a student is doing something that could cause them imminent harm," Roy said. "Then we do have to say something."
If the behavior is merely concerning, not an immediate threat, the student may be referred to an adjustment councilor for further discussion.
"We know that our kids are experimenting with drugs, so the idea is to talk to them about it," Roy said.
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.