If proponents of recovery high schools could create their “model” student they’d have a hard time coming up with a better one than 23-year-old Cody Desmond.
Desmond, a graduate of Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, Ma., recently graduated from college and is in the process of getting his masters in psychology.
On Tuesday, Desmond, along with other Northshore graduates and administrators, told the story of their recovery school experience to an audience of Connecticut politicians and educators, who are hoping this coming legislative session the state will join the growing number of states around the country that are funding recovery school programs.
The session on recovery schools, which are secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency, was held at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
“What recovery high school has done for me,” said Desmond, “is simply save my life. It also saved the lives of lots of my friends.”
“I can’t thank those at the school who helped me get myself straightened out enough,” said a teary-eyed Desmond. “As soon as I got to the school, I felt an instant connection, and that connection helped get me on the right track.”
Desmond continued: “A lot of young kids are dying in our country due to drugs. It’s getting worse and worse. Recovery schools can save lives. Don’t let this opportunity pass.”
After he finished speaking, Desmond’s words were met by loud applause from the audience.
Another speaker was Kathy Errico, whose daughter was also a graduate of Northshore.
Errico said her daughter relapsed and died, of a heroin overdose, at the age of 23. “But Northshore gave me five more years with my daughter than I would have had.”
She added that she’s “so glad that Connecticut is taking the initiative” to study funding recovery schools.
Although each school operates differently depending on available community resources and state standards, each recovery high school shares the following goals:
—To educate all available and eligible students who are in recovery from substance use disorder or co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
—To meet state requirements for awarding a secondary school diploma;
—To support students in working a strong program of recovery.
The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, substance abuse counselors, and mental health professionals that each play a critical role in supporting the students. Additionally, recovery schools provide support for families learning to how to live with, and provide support for, their teens entering into the recovery lifestyle.
Across the country, there are 36 recovery high schools, ranging in size from 30 to 100 students. The nearest recovery high schools are in Massachusetts, which has five.
But in Connecticut, attempts to fund recovery high schools haven’t made it through the Education Committee in the last two legislative sessions.
Talk about renewing the recovery high school effort in the General Assembly have resurfaced in recent weeks after repeated sold-out showings of a film called Generation Found.
Generation Found was co-directed by Jeff Reilly, a Guilford native and Newtown High School graduate Greg Williams, a recovery advocate who last year launched the nation’s first big-budget addiction organization with a Westport businessman whose son died of a drug overdose.
The film makes the case that recovery high schools — in conjunction with support programs for teens on nights and weekends — can make a difference when other treatment attempts have failed.
Also fueling the momentum for the recovery school initiative is the fact that overall, in 2015, there were 697 opioid-involved deaths in the state of Connecticut. At a recent session on drug abuse at Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Dayton told the audience Connecticut is tracking a record 888 overdose deaths for the entire 2016 calendar year.
One of the speakers at Tuesday’s session was Melissa McGarry, project director for the Trumbull Partnership Against Underage Drinking (TPAUD), a partnership that includes parents, school staff, community members, and groups like the police and EMS, religious organizations, youth organizations, and many more.
McGarry said the group formed a decade ago, “When we figured out that kids were more likely to meet at a funeral than at a wedding.”
“Trumbull High School is a big high school — close to 2,200 students,” McGarry said. “Regular high schools are not a therapeutic situation. You need special environments, not regular high schools, to deal with kids who have adversarial relationships, kids with anxiety, kids with behavioral issues, kids actively involved in drug use.”
One of those in attendance Tuesday was recovery school advocate Mary Mushinsky, a Democrat and state representative from Wallingford.
Mushinsky said that even though the state faces a “very big deficit,” she is hopeful that this is the year “we can find some money to move this forward.”
Rep. Theresa Conroy, D-Seymour, said she thinks the issue has momentum.
“We didn’t have the momentum” to pass recovery school legislation in the past, Conroy said. However, “the legislature is really focused on this issue this year.”