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Start a recovery high school on Long Island for young addicts

One in 5 local high school students meets

One in 5 local high school students meets the criteria for addiction, says The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

There are roughly 135,000 high school students on Long Island. And 1 in 5 — or about 27,000 of those kids — meets the medical criteria for addiction, according to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Those numbers are growing amid our region’s heroin crisis, and treatment centers routinely see 13- and 14-year-olds who are using prescription painkillers, heroin and other drugs several times a day.

Those lucky enough to escape an overdose or the violent wrath of a drug dealer to make it to a treatment facility will have a safe and supportive environment to fight addiction. After a few weeks of treatment, many of them feel great, and are on their way to return to their families, friends, neighborhoods and schools.

Several studies over the last two decades suggest that 85 percent of those kids will be using drugs again within a year, and most do within six months. That’s because after leaving the protective oasis of rehab, they were tossed back into the same classes, extracurricular activities and social pressures that, when layered on top of adolescence and a substance-use disorder, make long-term success difficult. These kids, many of whom also have mental health issues, wind up dropping out of school, become unemployable and are at risk for foster care placement, arrest, incarceration, overdose or death.

That’s why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan for two recovery high schools in New York is vital. Given the magnitude of the crisis, Long Island needs one of those schools, where sober kids can interact with other kids in recovery, avoid post-treatment bullying and get comprehensive recovery support as part of the school day.

The Nassau-Suffolk border would be ideal, and a joint initiative between Eastern Suffolk, Western Suffolk and Nassau BOCES might get the job done. How many empty school buildings are there on Long Island?

According to the National Association of Recovery Schools, there are three dozen recovery schools in 20 states nationwide. The schools proposed in New York would be schools within schools, rather than stand-alone projects. That would reduce costs, siting issues and other startup barriers.

Recovery high schools are drug-free, but that’s not the only thing that distinguishes them from traditional schools. Classes tend to be small to allow individualized instruction; a flexible curriculum allows for addiction and mental health treatment; kids participate in peer support groups; and the environment caters to sober living. There’s an academic and therapeutic balance that can be individualized and adjusted based on need.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether recovery schools segregate or stigmatize kids struggling with addiction. But consider that in these schools, relapse rates are cut by more than half — and that saves lives — and graduation rates are improved, which better positions kids to succeed.

Many families are forced to choose between their kids’ education and recovery, and many young people drop out of school after a treatment stint or two, only to wind up in their parent’s basement playing video games.

Many addiction experts want all high schools to be as safe as recovery schools, where kids with substance-use disorders can bounce back and thrive in a drug-free environment with the support of their peers and recovery support services woven into schools.

We could move closer to that goal when Long Island’s young addicts get a recovery school.

Jeffrey L. Reynolds is president and chief executive of Family and Children’s Association and a member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Heroin and Opioid Task Force.