A Long Road to Recovery School in Knox County

May 14, 2019


  For a teenager addicted to marijuana or hitting the bottle with friends, there are plenty of risks. A drug habit can destroy relationships, harm grades and trigger jail time. Those consequences are tough to look at. But young people may find it even more enticing to avoid eye contact with the problems that drugs help them flee – like abuse, trauma, or depression hovering in their peripheral vision.

Now try to focus on studying for a test.

This is more than a school problem, says Melissa Drinnon, director of student support services for Knox County Schools. That’s why community and school leaders began meeting in January to develop a pilot school for teens recovering from addiction.

“The school system is one of the areas that’s impacted, but it really is a community issue,” Drinnon said. “So really to combat this, we have to look at it as a community effort.”

Partners include juvenile court, local governments and the addiction treatment experts at the Helen Ross McNabb Center.

The school would offer academics but also on-site recovery counseling, support groups with other teens, and wraparound family services, Drinnon said.

Today, treatment options for East Tennessee youth are mostly limited to residential and intensive outpatient programs. What's missing is help with the transition from these programs back to greater independence after recovery has begun.

That's a role a recovery high school could fill, said Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition.

“We don’t have anything like this right now in our area,” she said. “So students who do have issues and who may go to a treatment program -- when they come back, a lot of times they’re put back in the same environment where they got their drugs. And even though school people don’t like to hear this, a lot of times the access to drugs is in the school environment. “

What are they using? Marijuana is still number one, Pershing and other local experts say. In a 2017 Knox County Health Department survey, a quarter of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the previous month. Of those, more than half admitted to binge drinking. Thirteen percent said they took prescription pain medicine without a prescription, and almost 21 percent reported using marijuana.

This common drug use is why experts say recovery schools work best when isolated on a separate campus. But for financial reasons, some programs share space with a traditional high school. The Knoxville coalition is considering using property owned by a treatment provider.

Planners are still deciding how recovery school students would be identified and chosen – for example, how long a student would have to be sober first.

The recovery school could work hand in hand with juvenile recovery court, a nine-month diversion program for teens and their families that includes a treatment team and group support. Teens and their families choose to participate rather than face traditional probation through Knox County Juvenile Court, where 23 percent of delinquent petitions filed last year involved either alcohol or drugs.

Mary Lindsey, a juvenile court director, said substance abuse is a symptom of another underlying problem for two-thirds of these teens. Recovery depends on addressing both.

“It’s not just an experiential stage for them,” she said. “They’re dealing with some other social issues, mental health issues, and this becomes secondary. This becomes a way of coping.”

Most recovery high schools are charters, private schools or public-private partnerships. Local officials hope to get pointers from a successful public recovery school in Las Vegas.

Drinnon said a Knox County pilot recovery school would probably start with six to eight students, then expand. Startup often takes 18 months, which could mean fall of 2020.

Last year’s state law authorizing recovery schools -- authored by former Knoxville state Rep. Eddie Smith -- provided no funding. The district will have to come up with the money, and that’s no small matter.  Knox County usually spends about $9,500 to educate a student. But recovery schools usually spend at least double that, Drinnon said. A committee is researching potential grants.

“It’s a costly venture to provide all those support services, so (we’re) just making sure that we are ready financially to make that commitment and have the support and the resources that we need,” Drinnon said. “Because if we’re going to build a program, we want to make sure it’s a really good one.”

It's worth the investment to keep kids from becoming addicted adults with no high school diploma, serving jail terms or unable to raise their own kids, Pershing said.

Mary Lindsey has seen how it lack support for addiction recovery can play out.

“What we don’t want is them becoming adults when people are less likely to spend the time, spend the energy, spend the money trying to rehabilitate rather than lock them up,” she said.