Advocacy continues for a high school in New York City that specifically supports abstinence

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Sobriety, Learning And Motivation: that’s what actor Kristen Johnston’s (3rd Rock from the Sun, The Exes) and Thom Krauss’s planned recovery high school, SLAM, stands for.

In line with the 23 accredited recovery schools throughout the country, SLAM’s founders visualize an environment that’s both tailored and holistic, with individualized recovery plans (including policies for relapse), mandatory drug testing, and active family involvement.

But right now, SLAM is stalled.  Johnston has advocated for a public recovery high school in New York City for more than five years and it has yet to become a reality.  Not a single sober high school exists in New York City or anywhere in New York State.  Frustrated, on December 29, Johnston posted on her Facebook page:

Hi everyone. Thanks for your amazing comments re:

The reason the Boston area has 4 is because their Lt Gov a huge advocate.

We have tried everything. We even weighed private for a while, but I believe it MUST be public.

Charter is an extraordinarily expensive & time consuming just to file the application! Even then, we are at whim of school board & there are no garauntees [sic] we’ll be accepted.

We’ve presented it to the former chancellor of schools 6 times. Each time told to do more work, research. We do this. Present it. Are given yet more.

At this point, despite a lovely board, I truly feel like I’m alone, screaming into a wind tunnel.

I don’t know what to do next.

Obviously, when I’m back in NY, I’ll make appt with new regime.

But I’m running out of steam.

If anyone has real ideas, let me know.

As for those of you who’ve kindly offered to help, right now we don’t need volunteers.

We need a “yes” from the School board.


There’s a reason that NIDA, NIAAA, and nearly every other research-driven organization recommend abstinence from drugs and alcohol during teen years.  Not only does early substance use increase the likelihood of substance use disorders later in life (people who start drinking before age 15 are four times likelier to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives), it also disrupts normal developmental processes in adolescent brains, which can lead to an array of difficulties down the road.

In fact, the more we learn about the adolescent brain, the more concrete evidence we have that promoting abstinence from drugs and alcohol among teens isn’t Just-Say-No orthodoxy; it has a real scientific basis (for more, see Just in Time for Brain Awareness Week, a research update posted in 2013).

info box How reasonable it seems to create a high school environment that specifically supports abstinence, particularly for adolescents who have already experienced problems related to substance use.

Consider the teenager whose drug and alcohol use has become a seriously destructive force in her life.  The substance use alone, as we know, increases her chances of future struggles with drugs and alcohol.  Add to that the consequences of her use–interference with important relationships, stalled academic progress, possible criminal justice involvement–and she could be headed down a very tough track.

Although this teen could clearly benefit from an intervention that addresses her substance use, she will probably not obtain treatment.  In 2011, about 8.4 percent of the youths who needed treatment received it. Incredibly, this is lower than the 10.8 percent of the entire population aged 12 and older who needed treatment and received it. (NSDUH, 2012)

Even if a teen is able to access treatment services, she will probably not remain abstinent for a significant period of time afterwards.  Although reported rates of adolescent relapse vary, the literature suggests that most adolescents return to substance use within one month of treatment and the vast majority within one year (Chung and Maisto, 2006).

Moreso than adults, adolescent relapse is often precipitated by perceived social pressure (Ramo and Brown, 2011). Teens, as we know, look to peers for cues on how to read each other’s behavior and navigate various tensions in their world.  And a significant proportion of American high schoolers use drugs and alcohol.  The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, just released, shows that approximately 40% of 12th grade respondents had consumed alcohol within 30 days and that 25.5% had consumed an illicit drug.

This vulnerability to social influence is the reason a number of recovery high schools have popped up around the nation, including North Shore Recovery High School in Massachusetts, Serenity High in Texas, and The Bridgeway School in Pennsylvania (see a list of Association of Recovery Schools-accredited high schools here).

Here, a student from a recovery high school tells Anderson Cooper about his experience:

“The biggest difference is that this school gave me a chance to see what another way of life actually was.” 

The majority of students at recovery high schools have undergone some type of addiction treatment, but most schools do not require it.  Rather, as Andy Finch, PhD observes, the admission for criteria at most recovery schools corresponds “more with Alcoholic/Narcotic Anonymous’ requirement of  ‘a desire to quit drinking/using.’”

Thus, recovery high schools can support abstinence for teens who have accessed to treatment and need ongoing recovery support as well as the many, many who aren’t able to access it.

In either case, as SLAM rightly points out on its website, for teenagers who have struggled with substance use, living free of drugs and alcohol is a “crucial life skill.”

So do they work?  Do teens actually learn this crucial life skill? Outcome data on recovery high school programs are scant–Dr. Andy Finch of Vanderbilt University is currently conducting a multi-site evaluation–but the numbers that have emerged from individual programs are encouraging.  One school reported a 70% rate of abstinence among its graduates.

So why in the world is SLAM still stalled after all this time?  In an interview with The Fix, Johnston blames the lack of funding on collective denial by politicians and parents that addiction is widespread among teens:

Throughout all of our experiences working on this together—I’ve met dozens of people and have gone to City Hall many times—I’ve learned that politicians just couldn’t be less interested. And I started to realize it wasn’t the lack of funding or anything else like that. It was this: if they say yes to a sober high school, it means they’re admitting there’s a problem. It’s like, I know somebody whose children are addicts, but she has never told one of her friends. Never.

Visit the website to find out more about SLAM’s efforts to bring recovery to NYC youth.


Read The Recovery School Movement: Its History and Future by William White and Andy Finch

Follow @BridgeWayPhilly and @rsbkgardner on Twitter


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