UNION COUNTY, NJ — Sen. Ray Lesniak is not happy that Gov. Chris Christie vetoed his bill to create a recovery high school pilot program throughout the state for young substance abuse victims. But he is hoping that something can be done about it soon.
“It was a huge mistake,” the senator said in an interview last week. “Very negligent on their part. But mistakes can be corrected and I am hopeful this one will be.”
Last week, the governor conditionally vetoed the legislation that would have created three high schools specifically for students recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, saying in a release that the bill would “unnecessarily restrict access to these programs as a result of overly burdensome state oversight and regulation.”
The “huge mistake,” according to Lesniak, is that the governor’s office never bothered to ask anyone about their concerns with the legislation.
“The troubling aspect of what the governor did is his staff did not speak to the commissioner of education,” Lesniak said. “They did not speak to Prevention Links. They did not speak to the recovery high school association. They did not speak to the NJEA, the New Jersey School Boards Association, or the supervisors association, all of which supported the bill. They did not speak to me, and they went ahead and basically destroyed the concept.”
Lesniak has been passionate about this project for a few years now. He helped open the first and only recovery high school in New Jersey, but the origin of his passion for helping people recover from drug dependency goes back six years.
It was about 2:30 a.m. and Lesniak was awakened in his by two men standing over his bed.
“The first words I heard were ‘shoot him,’” Lesniak said. “And the other guy said ‘Stay cool. We are not gonna hurt you. We are good people but we are just in a bad place right now.’”
The two men were strung out on crack cocaine, according to Lesniak, and they needed more money for more drugs. They rifled through Lesniak’s belongings and stole his cash before leaving.
“They didn’t harm me, but they scared the hell out of me,” Lesniak said.
According to Lesniak, the pair were apprehended not long after, and Lesniak went so far as to testify on their behalf, advocating for them to go to treatment and not prison.
“And so that got me started on a whole series of criminal justice reforms that deal with the problem of substance abuse and addiction,” the senator said.
Not long after, Pamela Capaci of Prevention Links contacted Lesniak. Prevention Links is a private, not-for-profit organization, which takes a leadership role in the prevention of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and related issues, according to their website.
“She came to me with the concept of starting a recovery high school, the model of which exists in other states,” said Lesniak. “It provides an educational opportunity for students who are struggling with abuse of drugs and alcohol. And it provides them a safe haven where they get peer support rather than the peer pressure in the public high school where they are subject to the same people and things that were a part of their addiction.
“Statistics from other states,” Lesniak continued, “that have recovery high schools demonstrate that 80 percent that go to recovery schools after treatment graduate, and 80 percent that go back to their public schools drop out, leading to a life of crime and untimely death.”
And so, with the help of the senator, Prevention Links was able to open the first and only recovery high school in New Jersey located at Kean University through the Union County Vocational and Technical School district. The school bears the senator’s name.
“It’s different from a normal alternative high school,” said Capaci, the executive director of Prevention Links. “All of the students are in recovery. That’s the first big difference. We follow the national framework that provides onsite support. We have a licensed physician on staff all day, as well as a recovery coach. And in addition, we have a curriculum that supports wellness, all designed to help students with their recovery, and it also help them begin to self manage their emotions and change their outlook.”
The Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School is “doing really well,” according to Capaci.
“We had really low numbers getting off the ground, but we are right now taking new registrations on a daily basis,” she said. “I think we are going to start the year with between 12 and 14 students. The really good news is that we are seeing referrals coming in daily now.”
According to Capaci, the school opened last February with only two students, both of them finishing the year in a positive way, but the school is also targeting itself to serve 25 students at a time, and Capaci says they expect to meet that number soon.
“I will say that the students we had last year, I feel both of them made it through the year successfully, and I think they would not have otherwise,” she said.
And while the school has so far been a small success story hoping to become a big success story, the governor’s veto of the bill to open three schools statewide was a setback.
“It doesn’t put the school in danger,” Capaci said referring to the current recovery high school, “but it makes it difficult for students to access the service. We were really upset. Our school opened with a lot of help from the senator, but the idea that students in south Jersey and north Jersey might not be able to access our services because they are too far away is upsetting.”
And just as upsetting, according to Capaci, is the idea that families struggling with addiction in teens will have less leverage with their local districts.
“The bill would have supported families who are looking for help,” she said. “This bill would have helped families gain access. This bill would have allowed families to go to their school districts and say we meet the criteria and now they don’t have that leverage.
“If we are really going to truly start to save lives,” she continued, “we need to work with these adolescents in their environments. We need to be serving them in their environments.”
A growing epidemic
Drug addiction, specifically to opiates, continues to be a growing problem in New Jersey, and there has yet to be a successful campaign to stall the alarming statistics that have been getting worse for years. In fact, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey in 2013, according to a report issued by the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use in New Jersey’s Youth and Young Adults.
The report also pointed to a five-year increase of more than 200 percent in the number of admissions to licensed or certified treatment programs for prescription drug abuse and a 700-percent increase of the past decade. In addition, there were 8,300 admissions to state licensed or certified facilities in 2013, and 40 percent of those admitted for treatment of heroin or opiate addiction were young adults 25-years-old or younger.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office reported 1,310 deaths from heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs in preliminary data for 2014, up from 1,294 in 2013 and 843 in 2011. Part of the problem, according to a report released last year by the DEA, is that New Jersey has some of the purest heroin on the market.
But the situation for young adults may be even more dire.
“Even in the best of circumstances, drug rehab is not easy,” reads the report released by the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use in New Jersey’s Youth and Young Adults. “It is even more difficult when adolescent addicts must also endure the normal stresses associated with school. In 2004-2005, 37,790 New Jersey students were referred to a school-based program or outside service for reasons related to the use of alcohol or other drugs (excluding smoking cessation). Studies indicate that the prognosis for students who complete a treatment program is poor, with relapse rates as high as 85 percent upon returning to school.”
Moreover, the report goes on to say that the problem does not lie with the quality of the treatment, but with the nature of the student’s environment.
“According to Dr. Dale Klatzer, President and CEO of the Providence Center – a community behavioral health organization in Providence, Rhode Island – 93 percent of students who return to their high school are offered substances on their very first day back at school,” the report states. “Dr. Klatzer also reported that within 90 days of returning to school, 50 percent of the students who have gone through treatment are using substances at levels at or above where they were prior to treatment. Most of those who relapsed did so within the first month out of treatment.”
It’s about peer support, not peer pressure, as Lesniak likes to say.
The senator acknowledges that the conditional veto by the governor is a setback, but he hopes to continue to make progress on combating what is now considered a drug abuse epidemic by medical experts. He is optimistic that there will be more recovery high schools in New Jersey’s future.
“There is a growing demand,” he said. “This is a new concept in New Jersey, but as more and more parents learn about it, there is a growing demand. But the veto certainly makes life more difficult to serve the growing need to help students with substance abuse problems.
“I am hopeful,” the senator continued. “I am working with Sen. Kean, and I am hopeful that we can put back in place what was taken out of the bill. And hopefully we will get it done in the fall. I can say that Sen. Kean has spoken to the governor’s office and he is optimistic that we can educate them and put the legislation back together again.”