Lesniak looks to pass recovery high school expansion bill despite veto last August

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Just a few months after Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill by Sen. Ray Lesniak to expand a recovery high school program statewide, a senate committee approved new legislation by the senator to allow for a new “integrated approach to education and recovery.”

In August, Christie vetoed a bill that would have expanded a recovery high school program to include three schools statewide. The new legislation allows for local districts to create their own recovery schools with school board approval.

Currently, there is only one school in the state that specializes in helping high school students recover from drug and alcohol addiction while getting a quality education, and it bears the name of the senator.

The Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School is located on the main campus of Kean University, and operates through the Union County Vocational and Technical School District. In August, the school only had two students, but anticipated an expansion as the new school year began, with 12 to 14 students.

The new legislation would not create any new schools on it’s own, but instead authorize local school districts “to establish alternative education programs, including recovery high schools, with approval from their boards of education,” according to a release from Lesniak’s office. The bill, S-3240, has already received approval from a senate committee, and allows for a sending school district to “enter into an agreement with a school district that has established a recovery high school alternative education program for the provision of services to a student who is currently enrolled in the sending district. If the student is admitted to the recovery high school alternative program, the sending district would pay tuition to that district,” according to a release from Lesniak’s office.

“Most students with substance abuse problems will not graduate and are just as likely to end up in jail or on the streets if they aren’t given the tools, the support, and the environment needed to stay clean and sober,” said Lesniak in a release. “These are young people who are at risk of being left behind and left out. But they can turn their young lives around with the grace of God and the support of others.”

Lesniak’s impassioned statement is backed up by multiple studies.
“Statistics from other states,” Lesniak said during an interview in August, “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.”

It’s about peer support, not peer pressure, Lesniak likes to say. And in New Jersey, the data indicates that more support is needed.

“Even in the best of circumstances, drug rehab is not easy,” reads a 2013 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.”

Since school often sits at the heart of relapse incidents, according to some experts, Lesniak feels this legislation is very much needed to help the most at-risk youth.

“These programs provide a comprehensive, four-year high school education in an alternative public school setting with a structured plan of recovery that is aligned with the national framework of evidence-based practices for recovery high schools,” Lesniak said in a statement.

The Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School located on the Kean University campus includes a student population that is entirely in recovery, has a licensed physician on staff all day, and a recovery coach. In addition, the school features a curriculum that promotes wellness, “all designed to help students with their recovery,” according to Pamela Capaci of Prevention Links in an August interview. Prevention links teamed with Lesniak to create the school. “It also helps them begin to self manage their emotions and change their outlook.”

The previous legislation to expand the recovery high school program to create three statewide schools passed the senate with a 32-0 vote, but was ultimately vetoed by the governor. But this time, the senator expects a different outcome.

“The recovery high school legislation will be voted on by the senate on Dec. 7,” Lesniak said on Tuesday. “And it will move through the assembly before the end of the legislative session. I expect the governor to sign it this time because we worked through our differences together. By the fall of next year, I expect we will have recovery schools available for children who have trouble with substance abuse throughout the state.”