Reading, Writing, and Rehab

By Beth Schwartzapfel | Boston Magazine |

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.”

  • 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.