Lesniak’s recovery school legislation gets approval

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The only recovery high school aimed at helping at-risk drug and alcohol addicted youth in New Jersey bears the name of Sen. Raymond Lesniak. And now that legacy is extended with the passage of recent legislation that makes it easier for districts to create their own recovery high schools.

The law, S-3240, authorizes school districts to “establish alternative education programs, including recovery high schools, with the approval of their boards of education,” according to a release from the senator’s office. “A recovery high school alternative education program is defined as an alternative education program that serves students diagnosed with substance use disorder or dependency.”

The first such school operating in New Jersey is called the Raymond Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School and is located at Kean University and operates under the Union County Vocational School System. The school is named after the senator for his “active leadership,” according to a release, in working with Prevention Links to open the school.

“Thousands of children drop out of high school as a result of their substance use,” said Lesniak in a statement via email. “Union County has established an Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School to give these students a safe haven where they can stay sober and get an education. Eighty percent of students who go to rehab for substance use drop out after returning to their schools – where they get peer pressure to start using again. In states that have recovery schools – where they get peer support to stay sober, 80 percent graduate. Many go to college.”

Under the new law, according to a release from the senator’s office, a sending district could 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 education program, the sending district would pay tuition to that district.

These schools could be a huge benefit to Union County and New Jersey as a whole. According to numerous reports by the state, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the nonprofit group Prevention Links, heroin and opiate use in the state has reached epidemic levels.

And to make matters worse, New Jersey has some of the strongest heroin in the country.

“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.”

Previous attempts by Lesniak to expand the recovery high school program for received conditional vetoes by Gov. Chris Christie. But changes made to the legislation helped the senator get this latest iteration approved.

“These schools can reduce the dropout rate and help keep those with substance abuse problems out of jail and out of the criminal justice system,” said Lesniak in an emailed statement. “Addiction is a disease that can be treated. This is one of the best ways to reach young people. They need peer support, not peer pressure.”