Metro

Bill proposes recovery schools to tackle youth substance abuse

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Of the almost 135,000 residents aged 12 to 20 in Rhode Island, it is estimated that over 12 percent have serious problems with alcohol consumption, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Integrated Behavioral Health Policy, part of the Department of Health Policy at the George Washington University Medical Center. Less than 3,000 seek treatment annually, it found.

Statistics such as these have pushed state Sen. John Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield and North Smithfield, to introduce legislation that would create recovery schools to provide students treatment for substance abuse while they work toward a high school diploma.

“We want to help these children right now before they end up on a bad road where they’re dependent on social services,” Tassoni said.

The startup costs of the bill are estimated between half a million and $1 million. Tassoni called the funds “money well-spent upfront,” as opposed to spending more later on under-educated people with long-term substance dependencies. He said the cost to the state of schooling, classes pertaining to drug and alcohol dependencies and counseling for people with substance abuse problems is $60,000 to $90,000 per person annually.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any opposition,” Tassoni said. “I think there’s going to be denial that we don’t have a problem.”

Rhode Island has some of the nation’s highest rates of illicit substance use — particularly for marijuana and cocaine — and binge drinking, especially in the 12 to 17 age group, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

For the past few years, Tassoni has been working with the Providence Center, a local nonprofit focused on providing health care to people with behavioral issues, including psychiatric illnesses and substance addictions, to launch Rhode Island’s first recovery high school.

According to Ian Lang, chief strategy officer at the Providence Center, the school will open in September and will accept its first students in January 2012, with an initial capacity of 10 to 15, regardless of whether the bill passes.

“Our goal is to get something open in Rhode Island to demonstrate the effectiveness of this model,” Lang said.

The recovery high school will be established within the Providence Center School, which currently helps students with behavioral issues not related to addictions. “If we can do it this way, we can lower our cost to make this feasible in the short-term,” Lang said, adding that any state funding will initially be minimally available.

Currently, after young people seek treatment they are sent back to their original high schools, Lang said. Ninety percent of students are offered substances on their first day back to school following treatment, and within months 50 percent are using at or above pre-treatment levels, he added.

“You’re trying to change the peer environment from peer pressure to use to peer pressure not to use,” Lang said. He added that to ensure a controlled environment, recovery schools should not enroll more than 40 students.

The Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, Mass. enrolls 50 students in “all phases of their recovery,” said Director Michelle Lipinski. In larger schools, indicators of substance dependencies — such as truancy and declining grades — are harder to address, she said. At the recovery school, students sign a contract that they will be “honest and communicative,” she said. Over 80 percent of the school’s graduates enroll in college.

“Even if we can only provide the service to 10 or 15 kids, it makes a difference for those kids,” Lang said. “It’s a life-changer at a low cost.”

“For too long, the education community has said this isn’t an education issue, this is a medical issue, and the medical community has said this isn’t a medical issue, it’s an educational issue,” he said.

“If you don’t provide these things for these kids, their future is basically over,” Lang said. “We need to look at this investment not as another program, another pot of money, but a much smarter utilization of resources in this state.”

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