California School Is a 'Stable Center' for Ex-Addicts

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Campbell, Calif.--A sign hanging on a classroom wall at the West Valley Community School here reads, "One Day at a Time."

And for students attending this school-based drug-rehabilitation program, every day of sobriety is a triumph.

One of only a handful of such programs nationwide, West Valley offers teenage drug abusers and addicts both a public education and the free counseling and services they need to stay clean and sober.

"If it hadn't been for this school," said Sean, an 18-year-old former addict who expects to earn his high-school diploma later this month, "I'd either be dead or in an institution."

Education and health officials in Santa Clara County, whose departments jointly fund the 31-pupil school, said the program was born out of their frustration with the limited number of drug-treatment options available to teenagers.

The troubled adolescents who attend West Valley are the lucky ones, they stressed. Both nationally and in this affluent Silicon Valley environment, relatively few drug-rehabilitation programs are specifically designed to meet the needs of teenage drug abusers. And young people who lack health insurance and must rely on public agencies for treatment face a severe shortage of program slots.

A survey by the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors found last year that more than 123,000 adolescent alcoholics and addicts in 41 states and the District of Columbia were being treated in public programs in 1988. But the group's members who responded to the survey estimated that more than 10 times that number--1.6 million teenagers--needed services but could not be accommodated by the public sector.

"There are not that many options out there for youngsters," said Elizabeth Houston, director of the alterna4tive-schools department within the Santa Clara County Office of Education. "Many of them move from one household to another. The one stable center for them is the schools."

Education and Counseling

The West Valley Community School was established at the beginning of the 1988-89 school year. To be admitted, a student must have a drug or alcohol problem, be a county resident, and go through an extensive screening process.

Most of the students have been in trouble with the law and were referred here by a probation officer or by social-service agencies that work with problem youngsters.

The students are expected to stay in the year-round program for a minimum of nine weeks, and many are enrolled for a full semester.

A teacher and two aides guide them through five core subjects. Three therapists provide each student with about five hours of group therapy, family therapy, and individual counseling every week.

The students are also strongly encouraged to attend several meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous weekly, including a ca meeting held on school grounds during lunchtime one day a week.

All students are subject to random urine tests. Those who test positive are not necessarily punished, however, because school officials believe relapse to be a normal part of the recovery process for many people.

The students are typically addicted to more than one drug, and counselors have developed strategies for dealing with different addictions.8Those addicted to cocaine, for example, might need a more structured day and would be prepared to expect and withstand intensive drug cravings, according to Annette P. Graff, a county psychiatric social worker stationed at West Valley.

Teenagers addicted to marijuana, on the other hand, a more socially accepted drug, may be more likely to deny they have a problem, she said.

'Marching Forward' Together

Educators here say the impetus for opening West Valley was learning that about half of the students who attended another alternative-school program housed at the same site were substance abusers.

"There is nothing in our society that is dealing with this problem,'' said Frank Adams, the teacher at West Valley. "Every school ought to have a component like my school."

Elizabeth Rahdert, a research psychologist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that the school-based model for drug treatment ''holds tremendous promise" because it meets, simultaneously, a student's educational and psychological needs.

"Everything is marching forward at the same time," she said. "The holistic approach is the way we need to go."

Over the past 18 months, about half of the 150 students who have entered the program have had a positive outcome--they have either returned to a regular high school, graduated with a diploma, or stayed out of the criminal-justice system.

The other half, school officials estimate, have sought additional drug treatment, dropped out, or gone to jail.

School officials say they believe many of their students have been able to succeed because of the school's informal atmosphere and its emphasis on individualized instruction.

Students at West Valley often have reading or math skills that are about five years below grade level, and most of their academic day is spent completing individualized lessons at their desks. Mr. Adams and his aides go from student to student, serving as both troubleshooters and cheerleaders.

Sobriety and Relapses

At the heart of the program, students and school officials agree, is an atmosphere that encourages honesty and support for each other. At the morning "check in" session that begins each day, the students sit in a circle and tell what they did the night before or discuss anything that is troubling them.

Sean, who like other students quoted requested that his last name not be used, announced at one such session that he had been sober for more than six months. His fellow students clapped and cheered. The day before, however, several teenagers had admitted having relapses over the winter break.

"Kids have seen other kids become successful. That's important," said Mr. Adams.

The emphasis on honesty and sharing also spills over into the academic classes. During a health-education class, for example, Mr. Adams asked the students to discuss whether they believed suicide could ever be justified.

"I used to think about suicide, and that was because I was on drugs," said Amy, age 16. "So maybe [potential suicides] are not in their right frame of mind."

But Joanna, also 16, said she did not think "it's all drugs, because even in sobriety, I've thought about it."

"I think it would be kind of selfish if I killed myself," she added.

'I Needed Peer Support'

The school's treatment philosophy is based on a 12-step model popularized by aa, which encourages participants to acknowledge that alcohol and drugs have made them powerless. Members seek the help of God, or a higher power of their understanding, and of their group to change their behaviors and lifestyle.

The students start their day with the prayer said at aa meetings, which asks God to help them accept the things they cannot change and have the courage to change those things they can.

Students said this spiritual component was important in helping them make the transition from drug addiction to sobriety.

"When I have a problem and I can't deal with it, I turn it over to God," said Carol, age 17.

Equally important, said the students, was the school's emphasis on teaching them what to do once they leave West Valley--and how to avoid the people and situations that have tempted them to use drugs in the past.

"In a normal high school, there's lot of drug dealing," said Carol. "There's really no support for dealing with drug problems there. I could go talk to my guidance counselor, but it wasn't that easy. I needed peer support, too."

Vol. 09, Issue 18

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