That’s the word Jenny, a parent of 17-year-old high schooler, uses to talk about her son’s descent into alcohol abuse. Drinking was how her son coped with autism and mental health issues such as anxiety and bipolar disorder.
“He has a hard time regulating that with medication, so the alcohol kind of calms the brain down,” said Jenny, a Sartell resident. The St. Cloud Times decided to not publish Jenny’s last name to protect the identity of her son, a minor.
When Jenny discovered her son was hiding a bottle of wine under his mattress a few years ago, she confronted him and he said he stopped drinking. But a year ago, someone gave her son alcohol at a family gathering, and her son mixed in with “the wrong crowd” over the summer.
Her son went to treatment and returned to his high school. But transitioning back to high school wasn’t easy, and he slipped back into alcohol use. Despite being on the path to compete at high levels for speech, Jenny’s son was kicked out of his extracurricular activities for drinking.
“He’s done so well with speech and public speaking, just to have that taken away. … It’s heartbreaking,” Jenny said.
The saving grace for Jenny and her son was something called sober school, which is in its first year at McKinley Area Learning Center in Waite Park.
Although in its infancy, the McKinley Recovery School has served seven students struggling with chemical use disorders. School leaders are now asking for money from the Legislature to help fund the program, which is one of only six in the state.
Jenny said her son was hesitant to go to the recovery school, because it was different and outside his comfort zone. There was also the stigma associated with going to school at the alternative learning center, she said. But soon after starting at the school, Jenny’s son started going without hesitation and ended up enjoying it.
“They are not judgmental. It’s laid back. It’s comfortable,” she said. “It’s safe, isolated from the other kids who are using. That was a comfort for me.”
The school-within-a-school design is intentional. McKinley Area Learning Center Principal Al Johnson and Shelly Green, chemical health counselor, designed the recovery school to be isolated from other parts of the school: The sober school students’ start at a time different from other students must be escorted in the hallways, and stay in the classroom while teachers rotate in and out.
Johnson said he saw students leave treatment and go right back into school, where newly sober students struggle to stay away from their dealers and old friend groups.
“There was not a safe, chemical-free environment for students to come back to to get their education when they are struggling with sobriety,” Johnson said.
Jenny said her son relapsed after an altercation with friends, but plans to start sober school again in April. He is on track to graduate this spring, and he’s considering studying psychology, she said.
Students on the margins
St. Cloud school district’s area learning center was established in 1967 to provide an alternative learning environment for teen parents. Since then, the program has expanded to serve more students with the senior high alternative program, two independent study programs, summer school, and evening school and night school programs. The area learning center moved to McKinley, a former elementary school, a little more than a decade ago, Johnson said.
McKinley serves as the alternative learning center for a number of surrounding school districts. While the school technically serves grades 9-12, students can attend McKinley until they are 21.
“Even though we look like a very small school, we’ll probably service 1,200 students inside of a school year,” Johnson said.
Although the demographics at McKinley are similar to the rest of St. Cloud school district, McKinley has a higher percentage of special education students, homeless students, and students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Also, upwards of 90 percent of McKinley students have most likely experienced some form of trauma in their life, Johnson said. He cites a CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which is one of the largest investigations into how childhood abuse or neglect affects later-life health and well-being.
The study lists risk factors — such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse; violence, mental illness or drug abuse in the household; and physical or emotional neglect — which can increase a person’s likelihood of drug abuse, school delinquency or violence, as well as adverse health outcomes later in life.
“They have dealt with it in various ways,” Johnson said of students who have not succeeded in traditional high schools due to behavioral problems or drug abuse. “We know that this is what happens with toxic stress. We need to help the brain reroute itself.”
Spearheading a sober school
Johnson is in his third year at McKinley. He juggled the budget to be able to hire Green two years ago after seeing many students had chemical use disorders. Some of McKinley’s 45 or so staff members help teach students at the sober school.
“That’s how I’m partly able to afford it right now, using my existing staff and rotating them through the day,” Johnson said.
Johnson testified in front of the Minnesota House Education Finance Committee on Feb. 22 to support funding for the recovery school.
Currently there are multiple proposed bills in the Legislature to fund recovery schools in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. A bill authored by five legislators — including Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, and Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud — would provide funding and allow for some of the money to be used to transport students to the program.
McKinley has open enrollment, so any high schooler can attend. The recovery school has a separate interview process to determine if the school would be a good fit; students should have recently completed treatment or 30 days of sobriety.
“As long as they can get here, we’ll educate them and we’ll give them a place to stay sober,” Green said. “Then we can start changing the culture.”
Green envisions a classroom of about 10 students in a peer-driven environment where students support each other with schoolwork and sobriety.
“My goal is to get up to capacity by next year, to be able to hire a full-time teacher,” she said.
To ensure students stay sober, Green tests the students for drugs and alcohol every week. She arranged a contract where the laboratory accepts whatever a family’s insurance will pay. The testing also helps Green track how the interventions are working.
It’s ideal for students to stay in sober school for at least a trimester. Usually by four to six months, students are doing well keeping clean. Not only are the drugs or alcohol out of their systems, but they are learning skills for remaining sober while catching up on education.
“The goal is not to keep them forever. The goal is to teach them what they need to know,” Green said.
‘The system is broken’
Before starting at McKinley, Green worked for 20 years as a nurse, then went to school to become a therapist. She said at least half of her patients with mental health disorders also had an addiction, but she had no training on it.
“You can’t treat mental health if you don’t get rid of the drugs, and most kids have co-occurring disorders,” Green said.
Green trained and interned at Hazelden Foundation, worked for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, then worked as a mental health and chemical health counselor in Germany for U.S. Department of Defense schools. She completed her undergraduate education at St. Cloud State University.
“In this area, alcohol is a rite of passage,” she said. But introducing chemicals into a teenager’s brain is detrimental, Green said.
During adolescence, the brain is undergoing its final development, going through a rapid growth phase and pruning back parts of the brain not needed in adulthood.
“If you put substances into an adolescent brain, it disrupts that process,” Green said.
Genetic and environmental pieces contribute to substance use disorders, as well. More than 300 genes are involved in addiction, Green said.
“This is like diabetes. It needs to be viewed as this is an actual brain disorder that you can prevent. It’s totally preventable by not introducing substances into the brain,” she said. “What we know is that 98 percent of those people who have lifelong chronic substance use disorders started when they were teenagers.”
Often, Green said, the pathway for children with substance use disorders is through the courts.
“It’s sad because we have the science. We know what we need to do. We need to be doing things that are helpful and not necessarily always punitive,” Green said. “The system is broken. It doesn’t work.”
Recovery school fills the gap in the system. And getting kids sober is cheaper for communities, taxpayers and insurance companies in the long run, Green said.
As the recovery school grows, Green and Johnson hope to establish connections with other support programs in the community.
“These are my kids,” Johnson said. “We’re going to take care of the child, and we’re still going to get them to graduate.”