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Recovery schools movement battles schools' culture of substance abuse

July 27, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Conference participants share methods for changing the environment in colleges and high schools

Members of a small, but growing professional organization, the Association of Recovery Schools (Fort Washington, Pa.), shared research and answers to a very current concern for many communities: how to check the spread of substance abuse in schools and how to build healthier environments for high-school and college students who are emerging from substance-use treatment.

“Any parent with a student who’s returning from treatment and headed back to high school or college faces a similar situation. There’s no safe and supported environment within most high schools or colleges where there are people who understand and can support student needs in the early phases of recovery,” says Monique Bourgeois, LADC, the executive director of ARS, who spoke at the recent Recovery Schools Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

As a former addiction counselor to young people, Bourgeois says that she got involved in the recovery schools movement in 2002 because she, with other professionals, “saw how students struggled when they tried to use the recovery tools that they received in a treatment setting. There was just nothing available to help them.”

Today, the movement now encompasses not only recovery high schools, but a growing number of recovery programs on college campuses. One of ARS’ primary near-term goals is to complete “recovery principles,” which it intends to use as the foundation for accreditation programs for recovery high schools and colleges across the country. Another, says Jim Williams, board chair of ARS, “is to put recovery education within the reach of every student that needs and wants it.”

To that end, Bourgeois says that the organization is welcoming new members to join the 100 organizations (foundations, schools, institutions) and individuals who make up ARS current membership. We want to expand our membership among those people interested in working with students in recovery, whether it’s a treatment center with an educational component, a college, a high school, or a boarding school,” she says. “We’ve got a knowledgeable group of members and we’re asking, ‘how can we be a resource?’”

The groups knowledge will be bolstered in coming years through a longitudinal study, funded by NIDA and the US Department of Education, that will compare a wide range of life, educational, and recovery outcomes among students who attend—and do not attend—recovery schools.

Another focus for current ARS members is to develop community collaborations that train representatives of colleges and local communities how to recognize and “manage” the environmental variables that influence student-decision making. Bourgeois says that an important issue on college campuses, where binge drinking is common, is “how do we identify those students who are chemically dependent and provide them with an environment to support their recovery?”

One member organization, Recovery Resources (Cleveland, Ohio) worked with two universities in the Cleveland area to mobilize concerned stakeholders including college officials, law enforcement, local residents, and nearby merchants in efforts aimed at re-orienting or “re-norming” student expectations about alcohol , developing sober activities, creating sober housing, and reducing the availability of alcohol on or near college campuses.

But the road ahead is long, say ARS members. Hannah Brett, a business development representative for Talbott Recovery, commented that in her experiences with southeastern US colleges, “many weren’t particularly interested in reducing the culture of drinking on campus.”

That’s a common sentiment, says Bourgeois, who says that efforts to drive recovery schools, when not driven by the parents of those in recovery, are often advanced in the wake of high social costs—typically rising arrests or emergency room visits—or by tragedy—a drug overdose or student fatality—that “demands” a community response.