Most Sober High Schools Are Very Successful. So Why Are They Facing the Ax?

By Jeff Forester 06/28/11

One in five teenagers meets the medical criteria for addiction. But as the nation's 33 recovery high schools prove increasingly successful in treating young addicts, why are they now threatened with extinction?

For many alcoholic teens, sober high schools offer a fighting chance

Bill W. could never have imagined 18-year-old Jeff Bunes, a well-spoken, sandy-haired Opie from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. And yet his story—which includes hard drugs, trafficking, detox and jail by the age of 15—certainly qualifies him as one of Bill’s friends.

Jeff has been sober 22 months, he tells me. Without blinking or ducking, his clear blue eyes looking straight at me, he says that if it were not for Sobriety High, he’d be dead.

I believe him. Yet many recovery high schools now face cuts or closures which could have devastating consequences for the students who rely on them—and for wider society. 

While it undoubtedly feels like a school, the wall banners feature phrases like “Turning It Over Is A Turning Point” rather than, say, a sign for the prom. 

Sobriety High started in Minneapolis in 1989 with just two students. It has 100 more today, and sober high schools have sprung up in eight other states. While Minnesota, the land of ten thousand treatment centers, leads the pack with 11 of the 33, there are others in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles—though none in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study, 78% of the students in sober high schools attend after receivingB formal rehab. Judi Hanson, the Director of Community and Family Outreach at Sobriety High, explains, “In Minnesota, the treatment centers do a good job of advising teens they will do better in a recovery school following treatment.” In areas where there aren’t any good treatment centers for teens, it is harder to start a sober school.  Says Hanson, “One girl came from Boston—she found an article about us and we told her she needed housing, so she contacted the Minneapolis AA Intergroup, and found a family willing to sponsor her. She stayed with us for two years.”

Enrollment is similar to any other school—students arrive with transcripts and all the typical paperwork. At Sobriety High, there is an interview with both the prospective student and the parents. The staff tries to determine where the teen is in their recovery and how committed they are.

During lunch hour at Sobriety High, students busy themselves eating, emptying trash, running mops through the classrooms and wiping down blackboards. Taking responsibility for themselves and their school is a part of recovery but it’s also a way for administrators to stretch strained budgets. There is no cafeteria, and the students use a small kitchenette with a fridge, microwave and sink for lunch.

While it undoubtedly feels like a school, the wall banners feature phrases like “Turning It Over Is A Turning Point” rather than, say, a sign for the prom. The students are diverse, with hair of all different lengths and colors; some have the seemingly requisite addict tattoos while others are decked out in Goth garb and still others project a distinctly Midwestern Wonder Bread aura. Their journeys are also diverse, with the lucky ones landing here after treatment but many coming from the courts, detox or the streets. Their paths are as different at their backgrounds; they are a rainbow of races and economic backgrounds.

Only a few telltale ankle monitors, or the hair-thin cross hatch of pink scars on the thighs of one young female cutter, betray the complicated lives these students lead. Some have never been to an AA meeting when they walk in the doors. Recovery schools must take them one student at a time, adapting as they go. “We meet them where they are,” says Michelle Lipinski, the principal of Northshore Recovery High School outside Boston. “We learn how to work with kids—first by figuring out what they need and then teaching them that.” Northshore Recovery School formed in 2006. “My Superintendent had a light bulb moment and suggested I take it on,” says Lipinski. “I was not that excited, had just had my third child. And this is really hard.”

Recovery schools fill in the educational and emotional holes opened when kids use. The classes are small so that teachers can check in with each student regularly and the curriculum flexible so as to help them with what they missed while they were using or in treatment. Some programs help students—many with hair-raising records—find work. Some also work with chemically dependent parents and older siblings as well. Students typically have “group” each day, and while it is not an AA meeting, the DNA of AA is evident. The main difference, really, between a sober school and a regular school is support. As Bunes puts it, “You can find people that really care, tell them the things you did and they won’t judge you.” And the impact of a sober school on sobriety is dramatic. “All of my seniors graduated this year,” notes Lipinski.

Relapse is, of course, common and there’s no one-size-fits-all response to it since educators here know that relapse is more a part of recovery for teens than for any other demographic. If the student comes clean, then maybe the parents are brought in and the student’s recovery plan is adjusted but if it’s a pattern, the student may be put on a contract stipulating certain rules they must follow or be given a weekly urine analysis. If they continue to lie, then they may be expelled.

Teens have different brains than the rest of us. 95% of the human brain is fully developed by the age of six but the prefrontal cortex—the decision-making portion of the brain—does not develop until puberty.

It’s worth noting that teens have different brains than the rest of us. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have proven that while 95% of the human brain is fully developed by the age of six, the prefrontal cortex—or decision-making portion of the brain—does not develop until puberty. (No surprise to any parent who has asked themselves, “What were you thinking?” and heard “Nothing” in response—which is to say every parent.)

All teenagers have low impulse control but the stakes are higher for chemically dependent kids trying to stay sober. Says Joe Schrank, founder of the Core Company and a board member of the National Youth Recovery Foundation (as well as a co-founder of The Fix), “When you put pot and booze on top of adolescent stupidity, kids are at risk.” Trace Bowermaster, a board member at the Association of Recovery Schools and a teacher at White Bear Sober High, adds, “We have to be the kids’ prefrontal cortex and say, ‘Stop and think before you act.’” (White Bear actually has a “Stop and Think” week and the students wear “Stop and Think” bracelets.)

Just try adding acne, constant temptation and regularly being heckled that you’re a “pussy” to a standard newcomer’s recovery and you’ll see just how high the deck is stacked against teenage sobriety; the notion of placing them in an environment that caters to clean living thus makes sense. “In a regular high school, kids can’t move to another town or get out of the dysfunctional relationships surrounding them—basically, they’ll be punished for making a good decision,” says Schrank. By getting sober at a normal high school, Shrank says, kids are setting themselves up as targets—essentially waving a red flag to the bullies.

New research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University finds that drug use among teens is not just hard on adolescents trying to recover; it is a national health crisis. According to their study, nine out of 10 chemically dependent Americans started smoking, drinking or drugging before age 18. The CASA report suggests a cause and effect—teen use creates addicts: one in four Americans who began using any addictive substance before 18 are addicted compared to one in 25 who started using at 21 or older. 46 percent (6.1 million) of all high school students currently use addictive substances; one in three of them meet the medical criteria for addiction.

Says former Minnesota Congressman and CASA board members Jim Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic, “The combination of adolescence, an American culture that glorifies and promotes substance use, and easy access to tobacco, alcohol and other drugs creates a perfect storm for our teens and for taxpayers. We can no longer justify writing off adolescent substance use as bad behavior, as a rite of passage or as kids just being kids. The science is too clear, the facts are too compelling, the health and social consequences are too devastating and the costs are simply too high.”

And while the CASA report goes a long way towards defining the problem, the solutions are a tougher nut. The nature of addicts and of recovery makes success difficult to quantify. The most comprehensive report, Recovery High Schools: A Descriptive Study of School Programs and Students, notes, “retrospective pretest-to-posttest analysis suggests significant reduction in substance use as well as in mental health symptoms among the students,” but goes on to note that in-depth research on recovery schools is “sparse.” It’s difficult to define success as well.  An established measure of recovery is five years without use, and by this standard, no high school student would achieve “recovered” status unless they quit using in the seventh grade.

Jeff Bunes, for one, believes that adolescents need a drug-free school if they hope to stay sober. But the biggest hurdle to sobriety, in Bunes’ opinion, isn’t peer pressure—it’s untreated mental health issues. “It’s the depression some people get that makes sobriety hard,” he says. “Some kids are in constant fear.” Debbie Bolton, a social worker at Sobriety High, agrees. “The most common diagnosis we see among these kids,” she says, “is anxiety and depression.” 

Indeed, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that adults in recovery are four times as likely to suffer some mental illness, and the rate of alcohol dependence increases as the severity of the mental illness increases. Ninety percent of students at Sobriety High have other mental health issues besides chemical dependency and this number is constant at recovery schools across the country.

As a result, students at recovery schools need the extra support of counselors, psychologists, and ongoing mental health support, and this is costly. Says Cathie Hartnett, the Executive Director of the National Youth Recovery Foundation, an organization that seeks to provide funding for recovery schools, “It takes more money per student, and the schools must be on a segregated site if they are to have a drug and alcohol free campus.”

For kids at normal schools, adaptation isn’t such a major problem; they can, after all, move to the school across town when their campus closes. For barely sober teens, however, closing recovery schools will be disastrous. Many will go back to the streets, or prison, or they will be dead.

Minnesota’s unresolved $5.2 billion deficit thus hangs over the campus like a meat axe. National funding cuts to education have been deep and painful, and students in public schools across the nation have suffered reduced programs, crowded classrooms, and fewer course options. While sober high school advocates don’t believe there’s a target on recovery high schools in particular, administrators are quietly planning for more campus shut downs and staff reductions.

For kids at normal schools, adaptation isn’t such a major problem; they can, after all, move to the school across town when their campus closes. For barely sober teens, however, closing recovery schools will be disastrous. “Many of them will go back to the streets, or prison, or they will be dead,” says Bolton, the Sobriety High social worker.

Hartnett and other sober school advocates question governmental priorities. “We’ve blown millions on intervention programs that don’t work,” Hartnett says, adding, “Don’t even get me started on D.A.R.E.”  (The Drug Abuse Resistance Education, which the Reagan administration launched in 1983, has long been criticized by opponents as unrealistic and ineffective; even stoners across the nation joke that the acronym stands for “Drugs Are Really Excellent,” with t-shirts to prove it.)  Says Susan Foster, Vice President of CASA, “There has been a lot of research on D.A.R.E. and it has not proven to be effective…these programs look at substance abuse as behavioral choices instead of as health issues. You can’t deal with a health problem just by advocating against it.”

Supporters also point out that closing recovery schools makes little fiscal sense. “Recovery school is a fraction of the cost of incarceration,” says Joe Schrank. “If you like having these kids in high school, you’ll love having them in prison.”

“Look at Drug Courts,” adds Congressman Ramstad. “The recidivism rate for those who complete the course is 24% while the rate for criminal court is 75%.”

Ramstad, who was the Republican co-author of Senator Paul Wellstone’s 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, argues that addiction is a mental health issue and notes that ongoing treatment for addicts pays huge dividends. “There is no question that it is a lot more cost-effective to produce high school grads than felons,” he says, arguing that the Mental Health Parity Act should require that an Individual Education Plan or IEP— designed for kids with disabilities—be written for students in recovery. With an IEP in place, federal dollars would begin to flow. Schrank concurs. “If a kid had to leave school for cancer,” he says, “then they would write an IEP.”

“There are too many people who are still being discriminated against,” says Ramstad, his voice rising. “Addictions should be treated the same as physical diseases. The law requires treatment of the brain the same as treatment of the body. It is a civil rights issue, as Wellstone used to say.”

And yet, as is often the case, federal dollars are not the entire solution. Educators like Traci Bowermaster see the IEP designation as a blunt instrument. “It seems like it is an easy call to make these kids Special Ed,” she says, “but if we did, we would be forced to keep kids in the schools that were still using and did not want to get help.” 

No one can deny that there is need for more sober schools and more money to help the kids that want it. In 2008 and 2009, there were 4000 students being treated for chemical dependency in Minnesota, but only 400 school spaces available. And this is the state with a third of all the available recovery schools in the country.

“Once you take the step into blending education and recovery, you get a much better idea as to what these kids need,” said Lapinski.  “But we are only helping a small number of students. Lapinski recently spent two weeks in New York talking about how to fill the gap. The problem is not that people aren’t interested in sober schools—it’s that they don’t know how to undertake a large scale sober school.  “They want data,” said Lapinski. “No one is going to build a major facility without data.”

“Recovery has the connotation of a death sentence for teens until they are ready to hear it. They have to learn that it doesn’t suck to be sober.” 

Perhaps as the Mental Health Parity Act is implemented and defined by administrators and the courts, it will provide more of a solution. But experts look to a different source for a long-term solution: the recovery community itself.

Advocates like Schrank and Hartnett are frustrated by the fact that tobacco companies and alcohol sellers spend billions targeting teens with the message that getting wasted is fun but the recovery movement is never marketed to young people. To counter drug, booze and tobacco messages, they hope to ignite a movement: The National Youth Recovery Foundation gives scholarships to sober teens, promotes a fantasy rock and roll camp, hosts a cooking school and will sponsor a national sober youth march on Washington next year. Hartnett is also launching a social networking site soon. These are all good first steps—but first steps only. Hartnett and others know that to be successful, the entire recovery community must begin to support chemically dependent teens.

Jeff Bunes can attest to the importance of building relationships with those in the outside community. He joined a 12-step group called Young at Heart, the thrust of which is to show kids that “you can still have fun even when you are sober” and which arranges trips to concerts, sporting events and other venues. Says Lipinski, “Recovery has the connotation of a death sentence for teens until they are ready to hear it. They have to learn that it doesn’t suck to be sober.” Bill W. recognized that fellowship is important for addicts, but for teens this is especially critical.

The juice, as many in recovery know, comes from one alcoholic talking with another. Which is why Shrank, Lipinski, Hartnett, Ramstad and others look to sober adults to reach back and help the teens. But teens—even sober ones—are, well teens, and thus not always the easiest people to aid. Lipinski doesn’t gild the lily. “The recovery community needs to embrace young people,” she insists. “We need to support our young people, even if they are a pain in the ass.” 

According to Sarah May, the Director at Sobriety High, anyone in recovery can help. “Transportation is always an issue, so if people from the recovery community showed up to speak or help with rides, that would be wonderful,” she says.

Social worker Debbie Bolton has an even more direct approach. “If every person in recovery would donate 10 dollars to a sober school, that would be great,” she says plainly. “What we do is important. We save lives.”

Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009.   

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.