UNION COUNTY, NJ — With the first public recovery high school in the state on the Kean campus off and running, Sen. Ray Lesniak recently introduced legislation that would add three more throughout the state.
Participation would be voluntary, according to the bill now on its way to the assembly for consideration after being approved by the senate 32 to 0. If approved by the assembly, the bill would allow students to attend any of the three recovery alternative schools.
Last October, when the Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School opened its doors on the western edge of the Kean campus in Union, it was a pilot program the senator was determined to see succeed and expand. Since then he has continued to champion the importance of recovery high schools being available in all parts of the state.
With the introduction of legislation paving the way for three more schools located in north, central and south Jersey, Lesniak believes it can only help recovering youth get the education they deserve.
The high school, run in conjunction with Prevention Links, a Roselle-based, not-for-profit organization that takes a role in preventing the abuse of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and related issues in youth, is part of the Union County Vocational school system. Although the high school can only accommodate 40 students right now, it is anticipated in the future that number will increase to 100.
Since the first recovery high school opened successfully with the primary focus on helping youth recover and move on to productive lives, the issue has taken center stage with elected officials throughout the state. This was the hope of Lesniak when he took on this mission and worked to see it come to fruition.
It was not an easy task to convince school officials that recovering teen addicts required a fully accredited academic program along with recovery support services, all in one high school, but eventually Lesniak succeeded because he refused to give up.
“Young people recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs need a supportive school environment that also provides an education while helping them stay clean and sober,” said the senator, noting “it is difficult enough for anyone in recovery, but teenagers and adolescents face real challenges if they don’t change ‘people, places and things,’ that were part of their lifestyle of alcohol and drugs. They need peer support, not peer pressure.”
The recovery high school, the senator said, works to reduce the relapse rate among Union County youth returning to the community after substance abuse treatment. Figuring significantly in this is parental support and community involvement with the school providing not only educational instruction but support through recovery.
According to experts, Lesniak said, where a student goes to school often sits at the heart of youth relapsing into drugs.
“Most students with substance abuse problems will not graduate and are just as likely to end up in jail as anywhere else if they aren’t given the tools, support and environment needed to stay alcohol and drug free,” the senator said. “These are children at risk of being left behind and left out. They can turn their young lives around with the grace of God and the support of others.”
The bill, S-2058, would authorize the state Education Commissioner to approve three alternative recovery high schools throughout the state that would be open to students who are both clinically and academically appropriate for referral by the student’s home district. The three schools, like the one in Union County, would provide an integrated approach to education and recovery, focusing on support at all levels.
Sending school districts would pay the cost to send the recovering addicts to these schools, which is already done with handicapped students and other special need students.
Funding for the Kean based high school also came from fundraising efforts by Prevention Links.
The idea for a recovery high school pilot program became almost an obsession for Lesniak, who worked tirelessly for more than a year with Prevention Links to realize the goal of opening the doors to the first high school. How he became involved in this quest, though, is a story in itself.
Several years ago the senator said he woke up in the middle of the night to find two youths standing over his bed, one holding a gun to his head. Although it was a terrifying experience, that moment left an indelible mark because of what one youth said as he left with Lesniak’s money and valuables.
“We’re not going to shoot you. We’re good people. We’re just in a bad place right now,” the young man said. Those words would end up haunting the senator until he met Pamela Capaci.
Capaci, chief financial officer of Prevention Links, would end up holding the missing link Lesniak had been searching for in order to help recovering youth addicts. However, while Capaci knew a recovery high school was the answer, convincing those who could approve such a venture at the state level would prove to be an uphill battle.
The two faced one obstacle after another, but eventually, after tenaciously pursuing every avenue, they were able to link the recovery high school with a New Jersey vocational technical school system affiliated program.
Students in recovery will find a program aligned with the state curriculum, peer-to-peer support, a 12-step program, individual and family counseling and education to strengthen parental involvement.
Not every student in recovery, though, will be admitted to these recovery high schools. Students will have to successfully complete a primary phase of treatment and be committed to a program of recovery.
The primary goal of recovery high schools, Lesniak said, is to increase the number of students seeking a sober lifestyle; reduce the relapse rate for students returning to the community after substance abuse treatment; and parental support and community involvement so students can improve literacy and related educational development.
Nationwide it is estimated 5 to 10 percent of children, or 150,000 to 200,000, have drug abuse problems, according to Andrew Finch, a Vanderbilt University professor who previously ran a Tennessee recovery high school for ten years.
Capaci said New Jersey is at the center of an epidemic sweeping the country, with overdoses surpassing car accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths statewide.
According to a state report by Gov. Chris Christie’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Task Force, there was a 200-percent increase in treatment admissions over the past five years, with a 53-percent increase in overdose deaths. Twenty-five percent of those admitted for substance abuse were younger than 25, with 80 percent of teenagers never graduating from high school.
Capaci said many teen addicts who try to push through addiction while staying in school become overwhelmed and spin out in a downward spiral, but those with the proper education, support and drug-free environment where their recovery efforts are understood, manage to graduate.
Recovery high schools nationwide, though, have not had the best track record since the first one opened in 1979 in Maryland. Since then, approximately 80 opened but only 35 are still in operation today.