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Children's Health: Pioneering High School Helps Teens With Addiction

Angela's got the fresh-scrubbed look of a high school cheerleader.

Angela: I don't look like the type of person who's been through anything or does anything bad, until you get to know me. I've really been through a lot for being 17 years old.

Angela's cousin was killed by a drunk driver. Her brother was murdered in a drug deal that went bad. She got pregnant by a guy who has since gone to prison. The baby died of a birth defect. Alcohol and drugs offered an escape from the pain.

Angela: My biggest struggle was deciding whether I wanted to stay clean. I do want to stay clean. It's just hard.

You'll hear a similar story from Chris, who started robbing cars and breaking into houses to help feed a drug habit. And then there's a kid named Journey. His parents were big fans of the 1980s rock group. He comes from a line of heavy drinkers.

Journey: My dad's an alcoholic... And his dad... and his dad's dad.

In addition to substance abuse, Journey, Chris and Angela have another thing in common - they are all enrolled in the Recovery Alternative School - or RAS - located just outside of Mt. Gilead, in central Ohio. RAS has been run for the past eight years by Andrew Hand. He says there's a lot of one-on-one time with the students, but no coddling.

Andrew Hand: This is a public high school and we have all the state standards as any other school. The kids still have to take the proficiencies, still have to meet the graduation requirements.

In most cases, the students have Individual Education Plans that have been developed for them. Hand says most of them won't stay here for four years. The main focus is getting them back to their home schools, after a concentrated sobriety program for students, and continuous contact with their parents. Teaching Assistant Nancy Sargent also helps guide the students to sobriety. A recovering alcoholic herself, Sargent brings an extra depth to her work.

Nancy Sargent: When I was in high school, I did the same things they're doing now. They think they have to be tough to survive. And they can't let anyone see what's inside of them. Hopefully, in our class, they can put that aside and be who they are.

Grouping high school-aged students with substance abuse problems into their own classroom setting is an idea that was started in 1989 at the 65 student PEASE Academy in Minneapolis. Since then, a couple dozen such schools have been started in the country, two of them in Ohio. Mike Magnusson heads the Prevention division of the Ohio Dept of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, also known as ODADAS. He says the Mt. Gilead school is part of a larger state program for helping at-risk students.

Mike Magnusson: One thing that's unique for Ohio is that in 1999 we started Alternative Education programs which largely reach out to young people as an alternative to suspension and expulsion.

ODADAS recently got funding to create the groundwork for a statewide campaign targeting adolescent substance abuse. It's the sort of thing Andrew Hand's been hoping for. He wants to move his program beyond Mt. Gilead.

Andrew Hand: I'd really like to expand it. I struggle because I thought it would have expanded already. And I think it's coming. There are more communities that are talking about starting programs like this.

A report issued last year by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation would seem to indicate a need for new methods of promoting sobriety among young people. The Berkeley-based research group found underage drinking percentages in Ohio to be second highest in the country.

Jim Joyner: The kids are the proverbial apples that don't fall far from the tree. They "use" because they live in a using society.

Jim Joyner manages training for Cuyahoga County's Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board. He hasn't heard any talk about starting a "sober school" in Northeast Ohio, but he understands the advantage of young substance abusers supporting each other.

Jim Joyner: Another side benefit to having a sober school is that it would help transfer the message to other kids, who maybe don't want to use and are feeling pressured, to say "Wow, those kids don't use and they seem to be doing okay. So, maybe that's a valid lifestyle choice for me too."

The Recovery Alternative School students are taking a break from their studies to shoot some hoops in the Edison High school gym. Journey and Chris are trying out one-handed lay-ups that generally circle through the net. And then there's Angela, launching powerful, underhanded, half-court tosses. She invariably misses the mark, but keeps trying. And each time she gets closer. She's getting more focused on her future, as well.

Angela: I've been here since November, and next year they're setting me up to go to college for half a day and be here half a day.

Angela had been thinking about going into nursing, but now she's considering criminal law. And why not? When you're seventeen, you've got your whole life ahead of you.

David C. Barnett, 90.3.