TRENTON — An Assembly committee Tuesday advanced a bill that would have schools screen middle-school and high-school students for depression, with a change requiring yearly written consent from parents.

But the proposal is still raising some concerns: How will the information be handled? Are the services available to help kids whose screening shows they need it? And if the bill is enacted soon, are schools in position to start the screenings in the middle of a pandemic?

The bill, A979, requires that students in grades 7 through 12 receive annual health screenings for depression administered via a computer. The screenings could include topics of anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal behavior.

Fran Pfeffer, associate director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association, said it’s hard to know how the screenings would be administered if school buildings are still closed in September, or if students are there in person some days and home other ones.

“I personally am concerned that you’re going to have some students filling this out, if schools are not in session, with parents staring over their shoulder, which may alter the results significantly,” Pfeffer said.

Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said schools wouldn’t necessarily even know if a screening done at home was completed by the student or someone else – potentially, another person in an abusive home.

“Any kind of mental health screening that would be done in a remote setting is untenable. The results would be unreliable,” Lamon said.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Robin Nemeroff said the screening is fine but that the bill lacks a plan to then provide services to children who need them.

“I don’t think asking questions is harmful, but I think once we’ve asked them and a student has disclosed thinking about perhaps killing themselves, that we need immediate intervention with people who know immediately how to intervene,” said Nemeroff, a professor at William Paterson University.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said the mental health system has long suffered from a lack of funding and needs to be revamped.

“No bill, as you would be aware, can cure all ills at once, and so we’re going to have to deal with the challenges of the mental health care system as it is,” Conaway said.

The bill calls for a real-time evaluation of results and same-day interventions as needed. A school superintendent is to inform a parent or guardian of an abnormal result and advise them to seek care from a professional. Aggregated data is to be forwarded to the state.

Steve Fiedelde, director of special services for the Ringwood public schools, said mental-health services will be especially needed as students return to school for the first time since March.

“I think that this is absolutely a must for part of every district’s reopening plan,” Fiedelde said. “All the mental health professionals agree that this pandemic serves as an adverse childhood experience for all children.”

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The bill advanced by a vote of 8-1 with four abstentions. The change related to parental consent was welcomed by the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, but other longtime critics of the legislation said they remain opposed.

“It’s very inadequate,” Whippany resident William Eames said of the parental consent. “It’s up front. It’s like the small print at the bottom of a 50-page contract. They’ll never know what they’re giving consent to.”

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.