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Students focus on keeping addiction in check

DETROIT LAKES - In a Detroit Lakes classroom, students map safe routes through a long weekend.

Steven Bickell, 17, has a plan: "Sit at home and do nothing." Boredom can backfire, his classmates caution. He shrugs. It seems to work fine for him.

Mike Leitheiser, 18, has a plan, too: "Have a cute little holiday with my family in the Twin Cities." What if he runs into certain old friends? They aren't his friends, he counters; he deleted their numbers from his cell phone.

At the 4-year-old Lakes Recovery School, an extension of the alternative high school in town, students kick off each day with a peer support assembly. Math classes give way to student narcotics anonymous meetings, and science tests -- to random drug tests.

Here, all students juggle academics and decisive battles against occasionally decade-old addictions.

Minnesota, the birthplace of the recovery school movement, has remained a frontrunner; the state's newest school opened in Moorhead this January. The growing movement sprang out of a realization that teens who return to high school after addiction treatment tread treacherous terrain.

Surviving high school

Sadie Rader returned to Detroit Lakes High School last fall after six months of chemical dependency treatment. Within weeks, the 17-year-old was drinking heavily again.

She started drinking to numb the anxiety of plunging back into the swirl of gossip, cliques and drama that's a 900-student high school, where everyone knew why she had vanished the semester before. Her anxiety mounted as schoolwork piled. She felt guilty shunning her drinking buddies.

"So much is happening at once, you're like, 'Oh, my gosh, it's overwhelming,'" says Sadie, a talented artist who's stayed sober since moving to Lakes Recovery School this semester.

According to the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families, more than 80 percent of teens in treatment relapse within three months of returning to a regular high school. Lisa Weber, the Detroit Lakes school's principal, says friends sometimes throw welcome-back-from-rehab parties, and progress toward recovery is undone in days.

"It's comparable to sending a person who's newly recovering from alcoholism back to working as a bartender," says Carol Falkowski, Chemical Health Division director at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "It's not a supportive environment."

Uncommon priorities and back stories can pry a gulf between recovering teens and their peers. At the Lakes Recovery School, students have contended with homelessness, mental illness and teen motherhood. One student's mother once returned the family's Christmas gifts to buy alcohol; another's still coaxes her recovering child to share a drink during rare reunions.

Moorhead Area Public Schools addiction counselor Scott Matheson says this year the district amped up efforts to help students in recovery, some of whom don't want to abandon the traditional high school setting. About 35 students in a new recovery track at Moorhead High and the Red River Area Learning Center get weekly counseling and mentoring.

But at a time of widespread cuts to school chemical health services in the state, most rural districts can't afford an addiction counselor. A slew of area districts asked the Lakes County Service Cooperative for help, said Jeremy Kovash, executive director of the group, which provides planning and support to schools, cities and counties. The cooperative teamed up with Moorhead's Youth Educational Services to start the Clay County Recovery School, launched with two students in January.

Support + structure

Recent years have seen deepening awareness of the odds teens face in battling addiction. Though the first sobriety high school opened in Minnesota in 1986, the majority of its 12 successors in the state, one of a dozen that have recovery schools, sprang up in the last decade. In 2007, about 4,500 Minnesota youngsters age 18 or younger underwent chemical dependency treatment.

These schools generally subscribe to the same basic formula: small class size, counselor support and the company of recovering peers.

"We give each other support because we all have to quit," said Bickell, the Detroit Lakes senior, who now goes to NA meetings with the same friends with whom he once shared "cocktails," handfuls of prescription drugs. "We don't enable each other."

School staff strikes a delicate balance between support and oversight. Recovery school coordinator Brad Laabs recites students their four options: recovery, insanity, jail or death. He also readily fields 2 a.m. phone calls to talk students through urges to use. District chemical health coordinator Angie Horner cheers students during the school's NA sessions -- and administers the school's drug tests.

Math teacher Craig Fahrendorf hunches over algebra textbooks with students who sometimes stopped paying attention in class or showing up at all years ago. He deftly contains the bouts of classroom defiance that signal a relapse.

"You approach every day with an open mind," he says.

Life after relapse

For Rader, the student who returned to public school before going to the recover school, this semester was going smoothly. After failing most of her classes last year, she was getting As and Bs and savoring a new-found self-confidence. Then, she slipped and had a drink.

She promptly picked up the phone and told Laabs what happened. "I just felt so guilty," she explains. He told her he was disappointed in her choice. He also told her, the girl who had been drinking since age 12, that this wasn't like her.

The Detroit Lakes school started out in 2004 with a strict relapse-and-you're-out policy. Within months, says Weber, the school staff scrapped that policy as hopelessly naive. Now, they stress honesty and turning inevitable slipups into learning experiences. As Laabs puts it, "We don't quit caring about you just because you've made a choice that's really self-destructive."

At the new Moorhead school, counselor Jon Tengesdal talks of turning relapses into prolapses, steps ahead in recovery. The school policy: Staff works with students who come forward after a relapse. Those who hide and get caught have to leave. One of the school's students went back to treatment recently after a surprise positive result on a test.

Hard-and-fast data on the effectiveness of sobriety schools is fairly scarce. Traci Bowermaster of the national Association of Recovery Schools says these schools have been shown to reduce the number of teens who return to using within three months of completing treatment to about 30 percent, from 80 percent at regular high schools.

"It's a very vulnerable group," Weber says of the school's students. "But when that culture of recovery gets going, you really see kids turn their lives around."

Bickell, the Detroit Lakes student, worries about summer break, a long test to his ability to stay clean without school oversight. For now, though, he tries to look ahead only to his upcoming drug test, which he hopes will mark the first time in almost a decade he flushed the chemicals out of his system.

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