Reading, Writing, and Rehab

At local recovery high schools like Northshore Recovery high school, students work to overcome their substance abuse. So what’s with all the drug taking?

s down on that side of the debate, which makes Northshore Recovery High an outlier within the larger recovery movement: There are no 12 steps, no strict path that students must follow. The notion of safe and sober is not black and white, Lipinski argues. Her students don’t “live in a world that’s safe. They’re in and out of homeless shelters. We would never be able to keep them here if we had that zero-tolerance policy.” Lipinski’s approach is aligned with what’s broadly known as “harm reduction,” which holds that, for better or worse, some people will use drugs no matter what. Needle-exchange programs and “wet houses,” where alcoholics can continue to drink, were born of this philosophy. The idea is that if someone can’t stop or won’t stop using, we should at least make his drug use safer and less harmful, both to him and those around him.

Lipinski’s unwillingness to demand that her students remain drug-free pits her against her colleagues. In fact, Lipinski recently resigned from the board of the Association of Recovery Schools, which sets standards and guidelines for recovery schools nationwide, because of what she believes to be its overly rigid approach to adolescent addiction. Traci Bowermaster, the board’s former chair, insists that allowing a young person to use drugs in a recovery environment is detrimental to him and the other addicts in the school. “In order for kids to really be able to embrace a new identity as a person in recovery, they have to remove ties from those who might still be using,” Bowermaster says.

Indeed, most recovery high schools ask students to commit to some version of a 12-step program prior to enrolling. At Boston’s William J. Ostiguy High School, for example, the expectation is abstinence. The school’s philosophy is that a student who is actively using doesn’t belong there. He belongs in treatment. Like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the school believes that no drug use is safe, and that total sobriety should be every drug user’s ultimate goal. “This is not a small thing for me,” says Ostiguy principal Roger Oser. “To put us under the same umbrella? I don’t think Ostiguy High and Northshore are recovery highs in the same sense.”

 

It’s Monday morning,  just a week into the school year, and all 52 students at Northshore shuffle into the school’s cafeteria and plop down on drab tan couches, arranged in a circle, for their daily check-in. Billy and his friend Alex, both wearing baggy jeans and oversize hoodies, sit together on a couch. Alex, a sweet-faced kid with blond hair and blue eyes, is recovering from an addiction to sedatives. “Alex,” Michelle Lipinski begins, “can you share where you were yesterday and where you are today?”

“Sure,” says Alex, 16. “Last couple weeks, I had the mindset that I was going to just smoke weed, and just control it. Then I talked to my mom, and she started crying. I just couldn’t fucking handle it. So I was like, Fuck it. I’ll just be sober, for now at least.”

“Do you feel like you just stopped a tidal wave from hitting you?” Lipinski asks.

“Yeah,” Alex nods. “But I just want to smoke weed and be a normal teenager, you know?”

Smoking pot is so common at Northshore that Lipinski says “students really do perceive of marijuana as legal.” And like its students, the school treats the drug as different from others, essentially handling it the way the state does — as a misdemeanor. But its ubiquity seems to confuse students about just what being clean means. One young woman who smokes marijuana every day tells the group that she likes to think she’s in control of her daily pot use, but knows that she’s not.

As the meeting continues, a guy tells everyone that his plan to have one or two beers the night he got out of rehab ended with him drinking so much that he burned a hole in his pants with a cigarette. “There’s no way I can have [only] a couple,” he says.

“You’re not alone,” says another classmate. “Everybody wants to be a normal teenager. You know what I mean?”

Lipinski nods from the corner, beaming with pride. “That’s fellowship,” she says. “And that’s where the strength comes.”

At William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston, however, the strength comes from fellowship of a different kind. During the second week of school, principal Roger Oser waits outside as students arrive for the day. The school is housed on the third and fourth floors of the Action for Boston Community Development building in Downtown Crossing, and on the sidewalk outside it’s not unusual to see business people in suits walking past actors in Colonial-era dress taking breaks from reenactments on the Common.

Oser stands with his hands in his pockets and greets each student by name.

“Hey,” one kid says to his friend as he arrives, stopping to smoke a cigarette. “You got a lighter?”

“We don’t say, ‘Good morning’ at Ostiguy,” Oser says. “We say, ‘Got a lighter?’”

The student smiles as his friend tosses him a lighter. “Good morning,” he says.

Oser, 42, is short, with a boyish face, an easy smile, and a wide girth. He’s wearing a shirt and tie, and his cropped gray hair is about the only part of him that recalls the years he spent in the Navy. Before Ostiguy, he worked as a teacher with the Department of Youth Services and then as an administrator in other settings for at-risk youth. He’s playful — the students affectionately call him “Rog” — but also stern. His staffers stress civility, respect, and order: no cursing in school, no revealing clothing, no hats, no phones, no headphones. Those with negative attitudes are evaluated daily to determine whether they’re exhibiting the school’s “five P’s”: prepared, positive, productive, polite, and personally responsible. If their attitudes don’t improve, they can be suspended. “I hate the concept that a kid’s going to come to Ostiguy and we’re going to ‘save’ that kid,” says Oser. “It’s not a treatment program. It’s not a daycare program. We’re a school. They’re here to learn.”

Suspension is not punitive, Oser insists. At Ostiguy, “When a kid relapses, that’s a time to engage them more.” When a relapse at Ostiguy does occur, the student works with his or her parents, and with Oser and the school’s drug counselor, to revise the recovery plan — attending more meetings, for example, or getting a sponsor — and is allowed to come back to school only after completing the steps.

Last year, Oser recalls, one student started missing a lot of school, and when he did show up, he looked disheveled and refused to go to meetings or therapy. Teachers suspected he’d relapsed, but because he was passing his drug tests, they didn’t suspend him. By the time they realized he was using K2 — an herbal compound sold as incense that can cause seizures and paranoia — he had already turned several other students on to the drug. (Because K2 was legal until earlier this year, schools only recently started testing for it.) “The kid was not ready last year. He was a mess,” says Oser. “Keeping him in here as long as we did was a mistake.” Eventually they removed him from school and sent him to rehab. These days, Oser says, that student is an intern at Ostiguy and “a leader of the recovery community.” The school has since revised its relapse policy, which now states that mere behavior indicating a setback can be grounds for suspension. “I’ve never regretted suspending a student,” says Oser. “I have regretted allowing students to stay in the population, hoping things would get better. I can almost say it never works.”

 

Preliminary data from the two schools highlight the stark differences in their philosophies and goals. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 97 percent of the 153 students referred to Northshore in its first five years actually enrolled and stayed — and nearly every one of them was actively using drugs at the time of enrollment. That’s no surprise given that the school will take all comers, regardless of whether they’re sober.

By contrast, the tougher standards at Ostiguy meant that while 84 percent of the 142 students referred to that school wound up enrolling and staying, just 22 percent of them were actively using at the time. What’s really striking, though, is that while fully 90 percent of Northshore students reported that they continued substance use, at least occasionally, after leaving the school, just 12 percent of Ostiguy students reported the same. Even so, according to the DPH, students at both schools who were still using when they left were doing so less often than when they initially enrolled.

It’s easy to think that Northshore is simply too chaotic and too permissive to be doing its students much good. Especially when you factor in the conclusions of Harvard’s John Kelly, who says that adolescent addiction programs “generally have the best results” when they “reward moves in the right direction” — that direction being reduced use and abstinence — and have clearly defined sanctions in place. The truth is, there are times when you wonder whether Northshore has the kind of sanctions Kelly is talking about. Do the students there have the sense that there’s something — anything —  at stake? The bar at Northshore can seem extraordinarily low. As long as you want to get better, and as long as you’re not in imminent danger of killing yourself or others, the message seems to be: At least you showed up. We’re glad you’re here. Let’s talk about it. Don’t kids need to be pushed harder than that to do the miserable, difficult work that recovery requires?

But there’s something else that’s true: Northshore offers at least some kind of structure and support to the teens who need it most. And if the choice is between a low bar and an unsupervised 14-year-old boy hiding in the woods outside an ATM so he can rob people — as Billy once did to pay for heroin — well, the low bar may win.

 

Later in the day at Northshore, Alex and Billy go outside to smoke a cigarette and continue their conversation about marijuana. People can say what they want about weed, Billy announces, “But for me, that’s not a serious drug addiction.”

Alex nods. “I don’t think it’s that bad,” he says. “If you’re coming up positive for opiates, you’re going to have a problem.”

But Billy knows that eventually Lipinski will push him to cut down or stop with the pot completely. “When it does come time,” he tells Alex as their teachers start calling them in for fourth period, “I don’t know how I’m going to stop smoking weed. I have smoked weed every single day of my life since I was 11. And when I don’t smoke, I’m a dickhead. I’m such an asshole.”

Alex says that’s how he is about quitting cigarettes. “Butts?” Billy says, blowing out smoke. “I don’t plan on quitting them anytime soon. You don’t have to worry about that.”

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  • Hendrik

    I am disgusted with Beth Schwartzapfel’s article, “Reading, Writing and Rehab.” I have worked as a consultant at the Northshore Recovery High School on and off for three years and I have been endlessly impressed with the school’s energetic, thoughtful and encouraging approach to the process of recovery for teenagers. The goals of a recovery high school are (in order of importance):
    1) Keep kids from dying
    2) Keep kids out of jail
    3) Educate (academics and life skills)
    4) Provide examples of peers for whom recovery is working
    The rock-bottom approach to recovery that is appropriate for adults simply doesn’t work for adolescents. Minors are not in control of their living environments or their finances. Children cannot escape a hostile home, addict parents or gang infested neighborhoods without strong consistent support before, during and after relapse. Every teenager and every relapse needs to be evaluated individually. Suspending a student for a dirty test can lead to beating by a parent, a relapse on a more dangerous drug, or running away. The other students need to be protected as well. I applaud the Northshore Recovery High School for trying a different, more difficult and more thoughtful…

  • Kristen

    My name is Kristen Johnston. I’m an actress who co-founded SLAM (Sobriety, Learning And Motivation), a board dedicated to creating NYC’s first Recovery High School. I have worked exhaustively for the past 5 years, trying to make this happen. Michelle Lipinski has been a true hero to us, doing everything in her power to help, in any way she can. I spent a week at Northshore Recovery HS, and I can say from first-hand experience, everything Ms. Schwartzapfel relays in her article is categorically false. Ms. Lipinski is a strong, kind, brilliant leader, the teachers all cared so deeply for reaching each kid, and there is NO QUESTION it’s saving lives. I’ve never been to a school where so many graduates come back daily to see what they can do to help out. I’m disgusted by this article. If she had spent more than a cursory afternoon there, she wouldn’t have written such an inept, damaging article. It’s the kids who will really suffer from this. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Kendall

    When you berate someone whom takes extensive periods of time from her life to help drug addicted teenagers. This is not some fantasy world where you can wave a magic wand and every addiction you have can be cured. They are teenagers, it is obvious that they will relapse. The point is that they are on a path to their future because of these schools. When they were in public schools they were lost in the shadows, looked over. With recovery highschools they are put under a magnifying glass, and are forced to take note of their actions. I have a brother that goes to recovery high and now he is getting straight ‘A’s and steering clear of drugs and alcohol. They don’t condone substance abuse, they just make you realize there are always people like you out there that are going through similar occurrences, and give you that crutch you need to make it past your difficulties.

  • Jackie Valley

    This is truly one of the most irresponsible articles I have ever read. Clearly the author has no experience working with teens let alone teens suffering from addiction. Clearly the author has no concept of harm reduction and it’s effectiveness or it’s impact nationwide. Clearly the author has done little to no research on harm reduction programs and the preliminary evaluations, which show these programs to be “a viable and promising approach to working with highly marginalized drug users.” Clearly the author has never attended a funeral of a child who has died after leaving a traditional rehab program. I have. I have also seen kids fail at harm reduction programs – there is no one size fits all when it comes to addiction. If there was – someone would have started the program and we would eliminate the disease. I also know Michelle Lipinski personally and am appalled at the author’s disrespectful tone and commentary on a woman who has given up time, money and a good portion of her life to work with a very challenging population. I will NEVER subscribe to, purchase or reference Boston Magazine if this…

    • LBV

      In light of the article written by Ms. Schwartzapfel, I found encouragement by learning about Ms. Lipinski’s approach and attitude toward helping teens through recovery. Key comments made by Ms. Lipinski have given me hope and understanding of my own teen who is struggling with substance abuse. I am not critiquing the article, but, to those who found it damaging… i just want to say that i found it enlightening and saw Ms. Lipinski in a positive light.

  • Recovery High student

    Coming from somebody who quite clearly has little to no experience with addiction, your article is extremely biased. This school helps you stay sober on your own with support. They don’t suspend or expell you, because in most cases, what are the chances of you taking advantage of that unstructured time? This school saved my life and so many of my friends. I just got accepted into North Eastern University’s Neuroscience program. Every day I watch Michelle work tirelessly for us and to help those who are struggling. So if you’re going to favor Ostiguis wary of kicking students out till they get better, you have some more research to do. We allow kids to get better in school. They know that they have a whole team of supportive people behind them and I’d prefer that anyday to classic high school or ostigui