For the three mothers petitioning hardest for a new recovery high school in Frederick, there’s a bittersweet irony in the fact that the school will arrive too late to help their own children.
Terri Winn, Shannon Stanley, and Kym Starks are driven by the hope that the potential education center could break patterns that led their own children to fatally overdose. That’s the concept behind a nationwide association of recovery high schools — 40 in all — that were first introduced as a treatment resource in the late 1970s.
As the opioid crisis continues to touch thousands of families in Maryland, local efforts are intensifying to bring a new recovery school to Frederick County. The three mothers are involved with the Phoenix Foundation, a recently formed nonprofit that aims to open a school here by 2020.
The concept behind the the treatment is summed up neatly by the national Association of Recovery Schools, whose president, Sasha McClean, is working with the Phoenix Foundation to establish a local space.
"Recovery high schools are secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency," the association's website reads. In other words, the schools are designed to provide a high school education in a space where students can focus on getting clean.
An early start in Maryland
The very first recovery school in the country began in Montgomery County, where classes of 25 to 35 students gathered in a “supportive community” where they could “be proud of their sobriety and get help when relapsing,” according to a later report. The Phoenix School, launched in 1979, was successful primarily because it isolated students from the environments where they first began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. That first school helped popularize the concept of "positive peer pressure," a buzzy phrase that’s still widely repeated by recovery school administrators.
It’s a term that John Edmonds has also enthusiastically incorporated into his own vocabulary. Edmonds started attending the Phoenix School in July of 1989, shortly after the program moved into a new location on Hadley Farms Drive in Gaithersburg. For Edmonds, the school was a more palatable alternative to juvenile prison, one consequence of 16 felony convictions he racked up as a teenager.
"They were all related to drug charges, distribution charges," said Edmonds, who now lives in Adamstown with his wife and children.
At the time, he and his friends sold marijuana, but they also used "pretty much anything that was put in front of us," Edmonds added.
"I really didn’t want to go," he continued. "But I was a couple months shy of 18 and it seemed like a better alternative than going to jail."
Within a few months at the Phoenix School, Edmonds’ attitude switched from sullen teenager to eager program participant. The kids earned their high school diplomas, but they also took part in alternative peer therapy groups that included camping, skiing, and sporting events. Edmonds was having way more fun sober than he had selling drugs. After he graduated, he became an eager spokesman for the program, but disaster hit the Phoenix School in 2001. A massive fire destroyed the Hadley Farms location, and the program was eventually re-consolidated into a catch-all alternative school for students with behavioral and learning difficulties.
That shift in focus — and the loss of an exclusive recovery environment — led the Phoenix School to close completely in 2013. As the opioid epidemic was growing into a national crisis, Maryland was left with few resources for teenagers struggling with substance abuse.
Nowhere to go
Shannon Stanley’s daughter, Alyssa, started using drugs when she was 14 years old.
It started off with marijuana, but soon Alyssa and her friends were snorting prescription pills like Xanax and Percocet. Later, Stanley would learn that it was easy for Alyssa to get the pills from friends and dealers — some of whom attended Oakdale High School with her.
For Trey Starks, another Frederick County student, addiction swept in early and viciously. Once the 16-year-old started to drink, he couldn’t stop, said his mother, Kym, who once found him unconscious in his room with an empty bottle of rum. By 17, Trey was drinking cough syrup, buying synthetic marijuana, abusing prescription opiates, “whatever he could get,” Kym said.
“He was like a garbage can,” she added. “I think he would try anything that crossed his path.”
Alyssa and Trey weren’t alone in struggling with substance abuse problems, and Stanley and Starks weren’t alone in their struggle to find effective treatment.
According to the the 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Survey — the most recently available data from the state Department of Health — 45 percent of high school students in Maryland had tried alcohol by the age of 15 or younger. Thirteen percent of all high school students reported binge drinking at least once in the last month. More than 30 percent had tried marijuana, and just over 4 percent had used heroin — a total of 24,813 students.
In Frederick County, where the local health department offers free drug and alcohol risk assessments for adolescents, there have been 146 referrals so far this school year, said Jay Hessler, a coordinator for the department’s local addiction authority. Among adult users, it’s not uncommon to hear that substance use started at the age of 9 or 10 — almost a decade before they’re eligible to enter adult recovery programs.
“If someone thinks they can wait to talk to their kids about drugs until high school, they’ve missed the mark by several years,” Hessler said. “I think people would be surprised to learn when use really gets off the ground.”
Those statistics — and firsthand experience — are what prompted Edmonds to get involved with other recovery high school efforts after the 2013 closure of the Phoenix program. In 2014, he joined the board of a group in Washington, D.C. that was trying to establish a similar charter school in the city. Those efforts fizzled out, Edmonds said, largely because of the difficulties in securing public funding. But they did introduce him to Sara View, another Frederick resident whose own recovery experience sparked an interest in working with adolescents.
Bringing a space to Frederick
Last March, Edmonds and View held the first-ever meeting for the Phoenix Foundation, a recently incorporated nonprofit that’s working to bring a privately funded recovery high school to Frederick.
So far, the group has raised more than $100,000 for the school and embarked on efforts to earn state accreditation, a process that — for private schools — requires at least $250,000 in dedicated funds, according to board member Sean Nicholson. (Nicholson formerly worked for the Up & Out Foundation, a recovery advocacy organization in Frederick County that raised money for addiction treatment. He left the nonprofit early last year.)
The group also signed a letter of intent for a property in Frederick County, though Nicholson was reluctant to say more because the deal hasn't been finalized yet.
Relying on private funding is one way to ensure that state or federal agencies can’t dictate how the program is run, Nicholson added. But it also requires the painstaking fundraising efforts and extensive outreach efforts to garner community support.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who spoke at a gala for the Phoenix Foundation last fall, had never heard of a recovery high school until the board introduced him to the concept. Neither had Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, who embraced the concept in an interview last week.
Of the more than 600 cases in the juvenile division of the State’s Attorney’s office, he said, roughly 75 percent involve children struggling with substance abuse issues. And unlike the adult system, which is more geared toward punitive action, the juvenile justice system is largely intended to be rehabilitative. When the office considers charges for youth criminal cases, attorneys consider whether treatment resources have been extended to the perpetrator. Whenever it’s possible, Smith said, offenders are referred outside the court system.
"We’re trying to fight crime by connecting addicts to existing resources," he said. "Obviously you reduce the risk of reoffending if you take care of the addiction."
The problem, historically, has been a shortage of rehabilitative programs for youthful offenders. According to Smith, the State’s Attorney’s Office currently has two options: a targeted program for juvenile sex offenders, which caters to a specific niche within the criminal system, and the Youthful Offenders Program — a three-week class for non-violent first-time offenders with a broad focus on discouraging criminal behavior.
A large majority of the kids in the YOP do struggle with substance abuse, Smith said, but the program isn’t specifically focused on abstinence or treatment. A recovery high school would be another way to funnel adolescents away from the court system and into a program that could specifically address the root cause of their behavior.
On a broader level, Smith thought the high school could also help students whose addiction left them alienated from their friends at school.
"It’s difficult for youth to go back to high school once they’ve left," he said. "A lot of times, once they’re labeled as a junkie or an addict, it’s difficult for them to re-assimilate into that population."
Both Stanley and Starks watched their children go through the same experience.
In 2015, Alyssa had a seizure at Oakdale after she overdosed on prescription pain pills. She was driven by ambulance to Frederick Memorial Hospital, Stanley said, but not before most kids at school learned what had happened.
After a 28-day stay at an inpatient rehabilitation facility, Alyssa transferred to Urbana High School to get some distance from the incident. Stanley and her husband hoped that the new environment might help Alyssa’s recovery, but the teenager had to leave after a few months when her grades started slipping. Stanley enrolled her in another rehab program, and quietly withdrew her daughter from school as she completed the treatment.
"There was no way I was putting her back in that environment," Stanley said. "It was hard for her. She was embarrassed. She hated the fact this happened to her. She hated her reputation. I felt really bad for her."
Trey also pulled away from most of his friends when his addiction started to spiral, Starks said. He tended to feel most comfortable around kids who were also abusing drugs and alcohol, and his frequent stays at inpatient treatment facilities made it difficult for him to find a niche at Governor Thomas Johnson High School.
Both Starks and Stanley said that teenage addiction tends to follow a wicked spiral. Kids try drugs and alcohol to feel accepted, but those same substances end up alienating them from friends who don’t follow their lead. Addiction leads to shame, and shame can push kids back to the same friends who first introduced them to drugs and alcohol.
It’s almost impossible to escape, especially given the lack of resources for teenagers
Starks, Stanley, and Terri Winn — another Frederick mother whose son, Zac, started using heroin soon after his high school graduation — all checked their children into inpatient treatment facilities at various points in high school or community college. But after those 30-day programs ended, there weren’t many places for their children to turn.
The vast majority of outpatient recovery programs in Frederick are geared toward adults, as are most 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Frederick County Public Schools work with the Health Department to refer at-risk students for assessments, but there’s currently no one on staff trained specifically in recovery or substance abuse, according to Janet Shipman, the coordinator of school counseling.
"Once they come back home, there’s nowhere to go," Winn said. "Nowhere. They’re dealing with a system that was not built to accommodate them."
"They’re floating in the wind," Starks added. "There’s nothing but the same-old, same-old."
Back in school, kids also have the same access to drugs as they did before. Alyssa died from an overdose when she was 17, after Stanley withdrew her from high school. But she bought the drugs from a longtime dealer who texted her hours before she celebrated her 90th day of sobriety.
"I think she just felt like she couldn’t get away from it," Stanley said. "She didn’t have support at school. She didn’t have a group of good friends she could turn to. It must have felt like there was no one else in the same boat."
It’s the type of feeling that recovery schools try to combat, and there’s recent peer-reviewed research that suggests the schools are an effective mode of treatment. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse followed 194 adolescents with substance abuse, half of whom attended recovery high schools and half of whom did not. After the first six months, researchers found that students at the recovery schools were significantly more likely to have abstained from alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs.
According to Dr. Christopher Hammond, an assistant professor in child and adolescent psychology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, that environment of positive peer pressure can help adolescents whose neurobiology already increases their risk of addiction. It’s well known that social factors, including pressure from friends, can increase the likelihood that kids will experiment with drugs and alcohol. But during adolescence, the reward and emotion-processing regions of the brain also develop faster than the self-regulatory regions.
"I liken it to a car where the gas pedal functions very well, but the brake system doesn’t," Hammond said. "It’s easier to consider the reward than it is the risk."
In a recovery high school, though, there are rewards for remaining abstinent. The Association of Recovery High Schools supports a set of standards that include regular drug testing and peer support groups where everyone is expected to embrace sobriety. Even if a program only has 20 kids, Edmonds said, they’re all kids who share the same experience.
"It’s just a really positive environment," he said. "Even if a kid goes in with 10 percent willingness, in a couple of months, it’ll turn to 20 percent. Then 30 percent. Then they’ll be the best spokesman you have."