When Sobriety High closed for good this summer, along with it went a crucial support system for dozens of Minnesota teens who are recovering addicts.
The 60 students who attended the sober school's two locations, in Burnsville and in Coon Rapids, are left with a tough choice this fall — either enroll in a local public school or travel many miles each day to attend another sober school. Their decision could mean the difference between staying sober and relapsing into their old addiction patterns, parents and students say.
"Parents, I hear, are scared, scared to death that this will lead their kids back to using," said Paul McGlynn, executive director of Sobriety High.
For Braeden Jaeger, Sobriety High was the push he needed to get — and stay — sober. Jaeger, who graduated from Arona Academy in Coon Rapids this spring, said some of his Sobriety High friends have already gone back to using, knowing they won't have the school's support next fall. "That school was keeping so many kids sober," Jaeger said. "Sometimes kids need that external motivation, and they're taking that away."
Sober schools are invaluable because teens who are recovering addicts need a community of peers who are committed to sobriety, said Mike Durchslag, executive director of PEASE Academy in Minneapolis, a sober charter school with 75 students. Also important is that good sober schools have mechanisms in place to immediately remove students who resume abusing drugs or alcohol.
He said that 15 students from Sobriety High's two campuses, including eight from Burnsville's Alliance Academy, have enrolled at PEASE already. Durchslag has committed to serving as many of them as he can.
"We're just trying to do the best we can to let people know it's a possibility," Durchslag said. "I'm anticipating that … we'll be full when we open our doors in the last week in August."
Usually, the school isn't at capacity until January, he said. Students who wait until August to enroll may end up on a waiting list.
Despite the fact that the school offers city bus passes to students who need them, he said he's worried that attending PEASE just isn't an option for some suburban Sobriety High students because of the distance. Those students may return to their local public high school, attend an Area Learning Center (ALC) in the district or try a different public school, he said.
But re-enrolling at their former school is almost always a bad idea, said Durchslag, who likened it to asking an adult who is a recovering alcoholic to spend their days at a local bar.
"You don't want them to go back to the same community that they were exposed to when they started the drug and alcohol abuse," said Kristin Hawes, the parent representative on Sobriety High's board until April. She's also Jaeger's mother.
Like Sobriety High, PEASE has a full-time chemical dependency counselor and small class sizes, which foster personal relationships instead of letting kids "disappear and isolate" themselves, as addicts tend to do, Durchslag said. There's also a "peer support team" period where "students can talk about recovery issues," he said.
McGlynn said he's "heartbroken" that Sobriety High, a presence in Minnesota for 23 years and a model for sober schools nationally, is closed. "Basically, it was a financial decision," he said. "We thought it best to end rather than to try to provide inadequate services."
This year, Sobriety High lost a longtime donor that gave more than $200,000 annually, McGlynn said, and enrollment was declining. Beginning in 2009, they closed their Maplewood and Edina locations and endured several rounds of staff cuts.
Even with options like PEASE and Insight Recovery School, a sober school in White Bear Lake, the closing "leaves a pretty big void for families," McGlynn said.
Durchslag agreed that Sobriety High's departure will have lasting effects. "Yeah, people can say, you still have four [sober schools in Minnesota]," he said. "But the amount of seats we have has been greatly reduced."
He predicts that more students will need to enter treatment multiple times, fewer kids with addiction issues will graduate, and those who don't get help could continue down a dangerous path.
McGlynn said he's had preliminary conversations about starting a new sober school, but not until at least 2014.
Jaeger said he remembers how happy students at Sobriety High seemed when he first arrived, in contrast to how depressed he felt. "It was an actual community of kids who wanted to be sober, and that made me want to be sober, to be a part of that group," he said. "That's an experience you can only get at that school."