TRENTON — Legislation directing public schools to screen middle- and high-school students for depression each year is moving toward bipartisan approval after being amended to make it easier for parents to exclude their children.

The version of A3926/S2835 approved Monday by an Assembly committee that’s scheduled for consideration Thursday by the Senate budget committee says school districts must get written consent from parents or guardians at the start of a school year prior to screening a student.

The screening tests would be selected by the state Department of Children and Families and administered using a computer to students in grades 7 to 12.

“We unfortunately are living in a time when we’re seeing markedly increased rates of depression and anxiety among our youth, and suicide among our youth. Suicidality, of course, is directly related to depression,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington.

“We know that mental illness starts in youth and if we can treat it there, we can not only preserve that young life but we can do a lot to promote the productivity and happy life of the person that survives into adulthood,” he said. “This is a way to make sure that every kid gets screened so that we can prevent future tragedies.”

Conaway said the intention isn’t to usurp parents’ rights but to empower them with information if their child needs additional support. He said “parents are going to be in the driver’s seat with respect to the testing” – but thinks few will opt against having their children screened.

“With the news that we’re unfortunately hearing today, a lot of parents understand that this is needed,” he said.

A panel of social conservative activists testified against the bill. Their concerns appeared to be at least partially addressed by the changes to the bill, though those amendments weren’t public until Tuesday.

John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, said the bill could still run into “state mandate, state pay” constitutional issues that would make it illegal if not funded by the state. But he was glad it was changed to require parents to opt-in for the screening.

“It was good that at least you made that change,” Tomicki said. “At least the parents are going to get some kind of notification because other than that, what was happening, the state has become now the super parents. And rights are being taken away, we believe, from the biological parents.”

The bill was advanced 11-0 by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“As a first responder and a mother I know, and just reading the papers, when you respond to a suicide, the parents always say, ‘I didn’t even know there was a problem,’” Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, said. “And so teachers sometimes don’t pick it up. And we find that kids self-report pretty well. They said they do vaping. If they’re admitting to that, they’ll admit to this.”

The bill directs the Department of Education and Department of Children and Families to establish procedures for implementing the depression screening and says they may provide for other screening tools, such as for anxiety, substance use disorder and suicidal ideation and behavior.

Under the bill, a school superintendent will notify parents or guardians if the depression screening detects an abnormality and advise them to seek the care of a health care professional for further evaluation and diagnosis.

If passed by the Legislature over the next week and enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy, the law would take effect starting in the upcoming school year.

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