Teens take comfort in sober school
County, local organizations work toward prevention
Meg Chevalier will never forget the night her brother brought her home from a late-night drug binge.
The Dakota County teen had lived away from home for some time and quickly felt ashamed upon seeing the disheartened look upon her mother’s face. It was then, at age 15, she hit rock bottom.
“It hurt to see what I was doing to her,” Chevalier said. “My mom is so important to me. She’s always been supportive of everything I did.”
Though she remained at the bottom for a short time, Chevalier attempted to get sober on her own during her sophomore year of high school.
Soon temptation became too great and Chevalier relapsed several times.
Many of her friends at school also abused substances, making sobriety nearly impossible.
Chevalier, now 17, decided to start over by enrolling in Alliance Academy, a public charter school that provides a sober environment for teens who struggle with drugs and alcohol.
“I found exactly what I was looking for in this school,” said Chevalier, who has been sober for 16 months.
While attending the Burnsville school, Chevalier found a network of supportive sober friends, which she says has been key to her sobriety.
“It’s like a family here,” she said. “Unlike my old friends, they genuinely care and support my sobriety.”
It’s this network, along with her family, that keeps her on the path to recovery, Chevalier said.
“When I feel cravings, I realize I would give up my sober family that I have grown to love so much,” she said.
Chevalier’s sentiments are not unique. Recent studies have shown that students who attend sober high schools after treatment are more likely to stay on the path to recovery.
If sent to a traditional high school, 80 percent of teens struggling with addiction will relapse in the first 90 days, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
By comparison, the center found that 70 percent of students who attend a recovery-based high school like Alliance, will graduate sober.
Since it opened in 2003, Alliance Academy has struggled to stay afloat financially due to delayed state aid, and relies on volunteers in addition to full-time employees.
The sober school plans to host a fundraiser for the public to join at 2 p.m. April 21 at 12156 Nicollet Ave. in Burnsville. For more information, contact Lisa Westholder at (715) 651-4297.
Alliance Academy is just one of many organizations looking to combat growing rates of drug use among teens.
In recent years, school officials have seen increasing incidents of prescription drug use and persistent rates of heroin use.
Heroin use was on the rise about three years ago, but has since leveled off, said Debbie Bolton, school social worker and assistant executive director of Alliance Academy.
Counselors at River Ridge Treatment Center have seen similar trends.
Krista Pugsley, a counselor at the Burnsville treatment center, said she is seeing many teens experiment with harder drugs at a faster rate.
“Most start with pain killers and move up to heroin,” she said. “Once they use opiates they seem less reluctant to use heroin.”
Pugsley said she has seen some instances of synthetic drug use among teens entering treatment, but not much.
Officials at Alliance Academy noticed the same trend.
Though area teens at Alliance are experimenting with synthetic drugs, few consider it to be their drug of choice, Bolton said.
“A lot have been experimenting with it, and it’s hard to test, so many continue to use it,” she said.
However, school officials request a special, costly test for students they suspect are using synthetic drugs.
Pot use increases
Marijuana has been a popular drug among teens for years, and use in Dakota County is on the rise.
“Currently rates of marijuana use have been the highest since the ’90s,” said Shannon Bailey, adolescent health coordinator for Dakota County.
The 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, which is used by county officials to track substance abuse by teens, indicated that marijuana is the among the most popular substances among teens, second to alcohol.
That study showed few instances of prescription drug and heroin abuse among teens — about 1 to 3 percent of ninth- and 12-graders.
Dakota County Public health has taken several steps to prevent substance abuse in teens, Bailey said.
In addition to typical PSAs and efforts at high schools, Dakota County Public Health has worked to prevent substance abuse among teens by hosting forums for parents.
Its latest forum is set from 6 to 8:30 p.m. May 9 at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. Email Ann Lindberg at email@example.com for more information or to RSVP.
Officials at Alliance have seen similar trends in marijuana use, and credit the up-tick, in part, to changing attitudes.
Judi Hanson, director of community and family outreach at Alliance, said she has noticed parents who smoked marijuana when they were teens in the 80s, sometimes view the drug as a harmless plant.
But Hanson is quick to point out that today’s marijuana is often more dangerous than it was 20 to 30 years ago.
Unlike the marijuana of yesteryear, current marijuana is often laced with harsher substances and contains much higher levels of THC.
“A lot of kids think its no big deal,” Hanson said.
But studies have shown most addicts begin with marijuana.
Carol Fluguar is one of the many parents who saw her teenage son become hooked on marijuana and alcohol.
Fluguar said she first suspected her son, Tyler Novacek, was abusing drugs and alcohol after seeing discussions between him and his friends about the subject.
A short time later, he was expelled from school. Though she found herself surrounded by red flags, Fluguar said she struggled with denial.
“I thought that maybe it was a phase,” she said.
But upon finding a half empty bottle of wine in her son’s bedroom, Fluguar decided to send Novacek to treatment.
Once Novacek completed treatment, his mother sent him to Alliance Academy in hope the school would help him stay on track.
“I feel that they have my back here,” she said. “I don’t think I would have a son without them.”
Today, Novacek, a senior, is on track to graduate from Alliance Academy.
Fluguar advises all parents who suspect their child is abusing drugs or alcohol to do the same immediately.
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, one out of 70 teens are in need of treatment.
“It may take multiple tries for them to stay sober, but never give up,” she said.
Bailey suggests that parents set clear rules, stay in tune to their children’s behavior and friends to help keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
“This means doing the hard work to monitor your children and their friends – and what they are doing online,” Bailey said.
Chevalier’s drug addiction too began with marijuana.
She began smoking pot in ninth-grade and quickly moved on to hallucinogens and huffing – a habit she often supported by stealing.
“I’m an all or nothing person so once I started to give up my morals, I figured why not use,” she said.
Marijuana is often the hardest thing for teens to quit due to its mild reputation, Chevalier said.
“A lot of kids won’t admit they have a problem with pot,” she said.
Chevalier said she turned to drugs to deal with depression and other mental health issues.
Though she has a supportive mother, Chevalier said she found it hard to reach out for help.
“I didn’t learn to cope in healthy ways,” she said. “I closed off my feelings because I didn’t like to feel vulnerable.”
Chevalier said her self-destruction began with self-mutilation in middle school.
Chevalier’s struggle is common among teens and young adults who abuse drugs and alcohol.
Individuals who suffer from major depression are 4 percent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Those with schizophrenia are at greater risk, 10 percent more likely, than people of normal mental health.
Even teens who don’t battle clinical mental health issues struggle emotionally upon getting sober, Bolton said.
“Many discover they don’t like themselves, but it’s awesome to see them come out on the other side,” she said.
Therapy and medication has helped Chevalier manage her depression, yet she said, it will always be a struggle.
Today, Chevalier’s future is a bright one. She is on track to graduate this year and plans to attend college.
As for teens who continue to struggle with addiction, Chevalier has the following words of advice: “Don’t think there’s no way out or that you’re too far in. There’s always hope.”