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Clean and Sober

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By Jessica Portner

Jay plunks himself down on a sofa in the group-therapy room and announces that he needs to "take time"--school code for wanting to talk. A half-dozen other students slump into the comfortable couches that form a square in the corner of the main room. A lanky blond student in a leather jacket strums on an acoustic guitar.

When all the seats are filled, Judi Hanson, the high school's director, motions for Jay, a blue-eyed sophomore in a tie-dyed T-shirt, to begin.

"I had a dream that I relapsed, and I was really scared," says Jay, who describes himself as a "garbage-can junkie" who ingested every kind of drug before coming here to Sobriety High School, a state-funded private alternative school for chemically dependent teenagers.

"The dream bugged me so much because relapsing is the last thing I want to do," he says, fiddling with a bunch of plastic key chains clipped to his leather jacket. He earned the chains from Narcotics Anonymous for keeping clean. So far, he has seven multicolored tags marking 263 days of sobriety.

"A lot of people dream about relapsing," responds Tim, a sophomore with bright orange hair. "It's normal."

"Use it as a warning," another student suggests.

Hanson scans the circle for the next person who wants to unburden. "Valerie, you said you needed time?"

Valerie nods, and the class fixes its attention on the thin, freckle-faced 10th grader in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. A sign above her head displays the school's motto: Education with Love, Respect, and Dignity.

"The last couple of days I've been urging to use," admits the 16-year-old. It is early March, and Valerie has been at Sobriety High for just three weeks. She tells the group that she feels alienated from her foster family. She was placed with them on New Year's Eve after she tried to kill herself by drinking two bottles of hairspray. It was her ninth suicide attempt.

At first, Valerie recalls, she was happy to escape her parents, who, she says, are alcoholics who only fueled her addiction. But now, she feels she's not being treated fairly in her new home.

"My foster mom wrote something about everyone in the family for some project but didn't include me," the teenager says sadly, hugging her knees to her chest. "She even included the dog!"

"You got to talk to her. And then torture her," Tim says, laughing. Valerie cracks a smile.

Hanson suggests that Valerie discuss the situation further with her psychologist.

"A lot of kids come to this school closed and afraid of rejection," says Hanson, who has been the school's director for five years. Hanson is also the school's mother figure, a nonjudgmental matriarch nurturing a troubled brood. These teenagers have demons that need to be exorcized, she says calmly, and this school is a safe place to let them out.

Addicted adolescents have been exorcising their demons at Sobriety High since 1989. The school's mission is to help curb the incidence of teenage alcohol and drug addiction by giving students a sober environment in which to recover and learn. It was the first school of its kind in the country. In 1992, Recovery High School opened in Albuquerque, N.M. Two more schools for recovering alcoholic teenagers opened in Arizona last fall.

Daily group therapy is a graduation requirement at Sobriety High, which offers free year-round classes to its 42 students. To enroll, teenagers must be diagnosed as chemically dependent and have completed 30 days of inpatient or outpatient treatment for their addiction. All of the current students have a problem with alcohol. But most have also been dependent on a variety of other drugs and would take whatever was handy. "Cocaine, crack, heroin, marijuana, inhalants, LSD, Valium, mushrooms," one senior says. "You guess it, we did it."

Any high-school-age Minnesotan is eligible to attend the school. But the majority of the students this year hail from the Twin Cities area and live within a 30-mile radius of the school. Many students come from upper-income households; others have spent time on the streets, in homeless shelters, or in foster care. A majority of these teenagers got their first drink, hit, or injection from a relative. This year, all of the students are white.

While Sobriety High offers its students a free ride financially, these teenagers must make a serious investment if they want to graduate: They have to be willing to change their addictive behaviors and sign a contract to stay sober.

Because sobriety is a foreign concept to most of these teenagers, it helps them to learn the language of recovery. Students at this school "deal with their issues," "take time," and give each other "positives," in the jargon of the recovery movement. The terms may sound like psychobabble to some, Hanson says, but they are an effective form of peer pressure that helps keep these students in school.

At Sobriety High, if you're not clean, you're not welcome. Students who relapse three times are automatically expelled.

A teacher rings a brass bell marking the end of the first class period, and the students in the therapy session bolt from their couches and head out to the snowy parking lot for a cigarette before their next class.

A pack of 20 teenagers shivers against the wall of the school building, an unremarkable cinder-block structure tucked into a business complex here in Edina, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis.

The founders established the school in this out-of-the-way place because it was miles from the drug pushers and the school environments that tempted most students into using alcohol and drugs in the first place, Hanson says.

"The kids say they like it here because the come-on-let's-smoke-a-joint people aren't standing at the door," explains Hanson, who keeps the front door locked to bar unwanted visitors.

Now, instead of liquor, pot, and cocaine, these students bum Marlboros and Camels from each other between classes. Nearly the entire student population is nicotine addicted. But, unlike most high schools in this country, smoking is allowed because, says Hanson, "we can't ask them to give up everything at once."

Schools like Sobriety High exist--though they are few in number--because there's a need for them. The problem of teenage alcohol and drug dependency--a staple of television talk shows and political campaigns--shows no sign of abating.

According to a 1994 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, 87 percent of high school seniors reported having used alcohol in their lifetime, and a third said that they had been drunk in the past month. Alcohol has always been the drug of choice among adolescents, says Ken C. Winters, the director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse at the University of Minnesota. Even when marijuana use was at its highest in the early 1980's, nearly twice as many teenagers reported that they regularly drank liquor.

Winters and other researchers estimate that about one in 15 teenagers who drink alcohol will become addicted. The statistic is particularly frightening, says Winters, because alcohol is a gateway to more dangerous drugs.

Sobriety High students are well aware of those statistics. They are also versed in the Twelve Steps of recovery--the Alcoholics Anonymous manual--which many students consult like a Bible.

A five-foot-high chart in the school's main hall prominently displays the Twelve Steps, which are as much a part of the school's curriculum as trigonometry, the plays of William Shakespeare, or the rules of French grammar. In bold black letters, the placard reads:

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step Four: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step Eight: We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends.

The emotional demands the school makes on students are formidable. But recovery is not the school's most rigorous requirement. Students must take a full roster of mathematics, science, social studies, English, and electives to graduate. They have to meet all the regular state requirements.

In Larry Schmidt's afternoon English class, the juniors are taking their seats around a table. Today, they are critiquing each other's poetry, journal entries, and works in progress. With a student-teacher ratio of 10 to one, class work is often individualized and teachers allow students to tutor each other.

Schmidt, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, quiets the boisterous group by setting down a plate of chocolate-chip cookies. "This is a good batch, Larry," says a student as Schmidt hands out a flier printed with the students' work.

Schmidt asks one of the students to start the workshop by reading a pensive student poem. "I was locked in with no intention of finding a way out," it reads. "She showed me how to open the door. Feeling sorry for myself won't get me anywhere. It will only lead me to the bottle."

"I like the poem's strength and honesty," Schmidt says to the author, Caroline, a red-haired junior who calls drinking her "mental obsession." Writing about her elementary school vodka parties, she says, has helped her stave off the cravings that have dominated her life ever since.

Schmidt directs another student to read the first installment of Brent's mystery novel, a haunting passage about an abducted woman chained to a bed. It begins, "Pain, exquisite and immediate. As Mara awoke, this was her only thought."

"It's descriptive. I like the detail," 16-year-old Jeff says, imagining the gruesome scene.

"I like the rhythms," says another student of Brent's stream-of-consciousness style.

Then, the class moves on to another passage about a country boy driving his truck through Minnesota, and Schmidt asks the group to identify the colloquialisms used in the scene.

The students pick out examples of slang words and then turn to a poem by Nathan, a newcomer, who wrote an evocative piece about a person who's afraid of walking home alone in the dark.

These literary endeavors, while often macabre, are sophisticated, says Schmidt, who has taught English at the school for five years. Students here, he says, tend to be sensitive, intelligent individuals with a lot of creativity, perhaps because they've had a lot of rich experiences to inspire them.

"They learn in treatment about expressing their feelings, so creative writing is a natural outlet for them," he says.

But, Schmidt adds, students also come to the school with psychological and behavioral problems that sometimes limit their academic potential. Many of them suffer from clinical depression, and even more have been diagnosed with a learning disability like attention-deficit disorder. Often, their learning problems result from chronic drug use. Alcohol and such popular inhalants as gasoline and nitrous oxide can cause irreparable brain damage and affect short-term memory.

"Some students come in so damaged that they are behind in school an academic year," says Hanson, who designs an individualized educational program so each student can progress at his or her own pace.

As with many alternative schools, students at Sobriety High are graded as much on their behavior and attitude as their academic achievements. Students grade themselves on attendance, their behavior, and how well they keep such school rules as keeping profanity to a minimum, dressing respectfully, and putting cigarette butts in the designated bins.

The rules, which the students helped set, also prohibit talking behind one another's backs and telling "war stories" about how much damage they did while under the influence of drugs. Like the time Jennifer and Jodi, 15-year-old twins, set fire to a field behind their elementary school after a particularly heavy drinking binge. Or the time another student robbed a market to pay for a weekend's partying.

The school tries to instill in its charges a sense of social responsibility. Among other chores, students are required to recycle the cans, paper, and bottles they use.

Students' progress toward meeting their goals is measured each morning when teachers hand out written assessments of their behavior from the day before. Sheets of paper are distributed to students with notes that say "great job," "needs improvement," and "keep working on it."

Sobriety High works, Hanson says, because the tremendous peer pressure against using drugs and alcohol makes resuming a habit very uncomfortable. Its success ultimately is measured by the fact that each year 95 percent of its seniors graduate. All 10 of this year's seniors are expected to earn a diploma next month. Since its inception, the school has awarded 44 diplomas, and most of the alumni say they never would have finished a regular high school. And the statistics bear them out. The dropout rate at the school is 2 percent, while the region's overall high school dropout rate among substance abusers is 50 percent.

Sobriety High students also seem to stay sober after they graduate from the school. Hanson says the dozen or so alumni she knows haven't relapsed. Winters, of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse, recently began a three-year study to monitor sobriety rates among the school's graduates.

Sobriety High wouldn't have made it on the map if a New York City music-industry executive hadn't crash-landed at a Minneapolis treatment center in 1982. Ralph Hogarth Neiditch was working as an art director for Columbia Records in the early 1980's, designing album covers for jazz great Miles Davis and socializing with musicians like Paul Simon and Liza Minnelli. He was steeped in the record-industry scene, he says, and that included drinking and using cocaine, hashish, and opium.

"It was part of the business," says Neiditch, who chronicled his downfall during dinner at a Minneapolis restaurant last month. "I continued to drink and do drugs even though I'd already been through six treatment centers, a handful of psychiatric facilities, and had attempted suicide more than once."

An overdose of alcohol and barbiturates that plunged him into a coma finally made Neiditch decide to check himself into the Hazelden Foundation. He credits the renowned treatment center an hour's drive north of Minneapolis with his recovery. The pace, the people, and the contemplative setting persuaded him to uproot himself from his frenetic New York existence and start a new life. The Brooklyn-born Neiditch bought a farm a few miles from Hazelden and settled in to raise sheep and cows for eight years.

He also worked part time with young substance abusers at Hazelden's Center for Youth and Families and was struck by the seriousness of the problem among adolescents. Week after week, he would see young people leave treatment, relapse, and return to detoxify. He wanted to put a stop to that revolving door. He reasoned that a school where no one drank or used drugs, one that provided structure and a sense of family, could help these kids avoid the tragic consequences that almost cost him his life.

So he lobbied his old crowd of New York investors, including billionaire Donald Trump and entertainment-industry executives, and within a year raised the seed money for such a school.

In 1989, Neiditch rented a room in a community center in Minneapolis for $400 a month, placed an advertisement for a teacher in the local paper, and several weeks later, had a student body of six. The first couple of years were tough ones for the school. But, in 1991, the Edina school board approved its application to become part of the district.

At the same time, the state legislature agreed to provide funding for alternative schools, including private ones like Sobriety High, that serve at-risk students. Today, the school receives 88 percent of the state's per-pupil allotment. It sets its own budget, which averages about $175,000 a year, of which 60 percent comes from the state and 40 percent from private contributors, including local businesses and foundations. The Edina school board monitors the enrollment and forwards the state's monthly check.

Neiditch's dream came true without much resistance. There were no angry parents protesting at school board meetings or citizens writing letters to the local newspaper voicing their fears of having drug-abusing misfits in their backyard.

James Hayman, the assistant superintendent of the Edina schools, remembers that the district assumed its role with relative ease.

"I think there were one or two letters of concern written to the superintendent about these kids not being a good influence, but it was pretty mild," says Hayman.

"You have to understand that in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 treatment centers, there isn't much of a stigma on alcoholics," Neiditch says.

The most serious barriers to success for schools serving addicted adolescents are often financial. School officials in Albuquerque plan to close Recovery High at the end of next month unless the school's board of directors raises $400,000.

While Sobriety High is nowhere near bankruptcy, tight budgets have forced Hanson to limit enrollment. The school is so popular that there are 20 students on a waiting list, and Hanson is always turning away desperate-sounding parents.

"Maybe 30 people call about the school every day," says Hanson sitting at her desk strewn with applications for enrollment from across the state. "The hardest part of my job is saying, 'No, we don't have room.' "

Last month, Neiditch resigned as the school's executive director to devote himself to establishing one or more boarding schools for addicted teenagers.

"Parents are calling us and saying, 'We'll send our kids to you on the next flight,' and we don't have the means to house them," says Neiditch, who thinks a residential school will solve the problem.

He recently received $50,000 in donations with which he plans to open Victory High and Liberty High somewhere in the Twin Cities area next fall. One day, Neiditch hopes to have campuses in downtown Minneapolis and in the rural and southern parts of the state.

Sobriety High is a mom-and-pop operation, he says, and needs to be franchised. State officials have regularly funded programs for at-risk youths, and Neiditch expects his new schools will also receive funding.

That prospect pleases alumna Kim Brickman, who says the school saved her life. "Sobriety is an angel sent down from heaven," enthuses Kim, who graduated with an A average last spring and now delivers parts for a trucking company in a Minneapolis suburb. She hasn't had a drink in three years.

"I know so many down-and-out kids who couldn't make it in a [regular] public school," she says. "This school is a godsend."

Kim's mother, Amy Brickman, agrees. After Kim had been treated for alcohol abuse, she returned to her regular public school. Her mother later discovered that Kim had missed 119 out of 150 school days that year. No one at the school, she says, had done anything to intervene.

Brickman recalls that one day she smelled alcohol when she walked down a hallway in her daughter's school. She decided that "there was no way Kim could get the support in a mainstream school to stay sober and get healthy." Brickman made a deal with her daughter: Attend Sobriety High, and I'll throw a prom for your senior class. Brickman has been organizing events at the school ever since.

Last year, parents formed a parent-teacher organization at Sobriety High. The group has organized a Halloween hayride and helped the students run bake sales and raffles to raise money for needed supplies. The parents are now consumed with organizing another all-night bash for this year's graduating class.

Many Sobriety High students are amazed they survived long enough to do normal teenage things like organize bake sales and pick disk jockeys for school dances.

That's why they feel an obligation to issue warnings, to preach the gospel of sobriety to the next generation of potential drinkers and drug users.

Brent, Jay, and Tina--a junior--are sitting at the head of small table in a St. Paul junior high classroom talking to a dozen 8th graders about the hazards of alcohol and drugs. It's 17 degrees below zero on this Wednesday morning, and the students are bundled in flannel.

Brent, the student council president, is an all-American type: handsome, clean-cut, articulate. That's why it's a little shocking when he recounts how he and his junior high friends used to take hits of lsd in the back row of class and chug beer at keg parties.

"I was failing four or five of my classes," confesses Brent, who remembers taking his first shot of whiskey at 12. "My mind was so messed up."

After the police raided a party he went to last year and found Brent carrying drugs, his family enrolled him in a six-week program at Hazelden, which then led him to Sobriety High.

One of the 8th graders interrupts Brent's autobiography with a question for the three. "What's the worst thing you've done when you were high?" the 13-year-old asks with excitement. "I'd steal from my parents and pawn things to buy booze," Brent says simply. "Anything from stealing a couple dollars to a violent act of robbery," Jay pipes in.

"I started doing cocaine and heroin with my mom when I was real young," says Tina, a pretty, blond 16-year-old in faded denim overalls sitting beside Brent. Her message to these younger students is simple: Drinking and drug use have consequences.

Tina, who now lives in a foster home, tells them how she used to hang out with gang members and trade drugs for sexual favors, a practice she calls "flip-flopping." Gang shootings and regular beatings didn't deter her from her cravings, she says. What eventually curtailed her dope spree was the legal system.

Tina was arrested for bringing a .22 automatic to a friend's party one night and was sentenced for illegal possession of a handgun. After stints in a halfway house and another alternative school, a judge ordered her to attend Sobriety High.

"Everybody is really cool here," Tina says of her new school. "I like being accepted for what I am."

Two days later, dozens of restless students race around the main room at Sobriety High, playing instruments and getting their nicotine fixes before the final class of the day. Schmidt and a student are having a fierce table-tennis match. Another pair is engaged in a furious game of bumper pool.

When the bell rings, Jay, Jennifer, Jodi, and Tim slowly amble into their science class, where Cody Schimelpfenig, their 23-year-old teacher, has an inspired project planned.

"You're going to design your dream house," says the energetic first-time teacher as he passes out rulers, pencils, calculators, and graph paper. "Students bring in a lot of baggage here, but they are given the tools to deal with it," he says, asking the group what kind of houses they'd choose.

"One with an elevator with six floors," says Valerie. "A log cabin with a fireplace way up north," Jennifer says.

"I want my house to be the first one I lived in," says Amy, a tall sophomore with stringy blue-black hair. " 'Cause it's quaint, and I grew up there, and it's something you'd want to go back to."

Schimelpfenig reads a passage to the students from a book about art and architecture and puts on a classical-music tape as they map out their dream homes in square feet.

When the bell rings, Schimelpfenig tells them they'll start making models of their fantasy homes next week. The students stuff their designs into their bags and move into the main hall for the daily "closure session," where the entire staff gathers in a large circle on the carpet to take stock of the day.

Matt, a junior who's been bullying another student, thanks his therapy-group members for their constructive advice. Nathan applauds Caroline for a productive one-on-one talk. Someone thanks somebody for taking out the recycling. After each positive statement, everybody applauds.

Friday closure groups are special, says Hanson, because weekends are when these teenagers are most prone to relapse. And today's sudden blast of warm weather, heralding the start of the spring party season, doesn't help matters, she says.

"It's Friday. It's beautiful. Does anybody need to connect with somebody so they stay in recovery?" asks Hanson, surveying the jittery teenagers in the room. Several students raise their hands.

"I need to connect with somebody Saturday," says Caroline. "Somebody give me a call."

Several students volunteer. Nathan, who has been at Sobriety High only two weeks, says his calendar is empty. Jeremy, a junior who is the student council treasurer, invites him over to his house for a jam session. Several students huddle in the corner and arrange where they will rendezvous after their Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings that night.

"Get to the phone and call each other," urges Hanson, as the session ends and the students rush out the front door into the blinding afternoon sunshine. The music blasts from their car radios as the teenagers speed out of the parking lot through the melting snow.

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