By Michael Hill
“As a parent, I was heartbroken at the thought that we had come so far, we had come so far, and could lose it all.”
A mother talks about the prospect of having to send her teenage daughter from addiction treatment back to the same high school environment that promoted the teen’s drug use.
“Think about it. You would never take an adult who has a substance abuse problem or an alcohol problem and tell them go back to the bar for six, eight hours a day, five days a week and see how you do,” she said.
Instead, the daughter attended and, so far, has become the only graduate of the 3-year-old Lesniak Experience Strength Hope Recovery High School — the only public one in New Jersey.
“And so we were so grateful,” said the mother.
Today, that daughter lives at the Recovery House at Rutgers — two weeks shy of two years of sobriety.
It’s the kind of outcome Gina Vaccaro also wants for her daughter, who is in recovery but back at Livingston High School. Vaccaro says the district recently twice denied paying for her daughter to attend the Lesniak Recovery School in Roselle.
“About two week ago, Jan. 11, she was witness to a child who was openly dealing drugs to a group of people. That child was arrested and at that point I again appealed to the superintendent and the board and was denied,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro emailed Prevention Links, which operates the Lesniak Recovery High School. Her experience has become the impetus for Sens. Ray Lesniak and Teresa Ruiz’s bill that would require districts to pay for a student to attend a recovery school if a medical or clinical professional determines the student has a substance abuse disorder and wants to transfer.
“In a recovery school, the students get peer support. Back in their former environment they get peer pressure, and that makes all the difference in the world,” Lesniak said.
“One of the primary reasons why this model works is because the students are able to build a new peer group,” said Prevention Links Executive Director Pam Capaci.
Lesniak says the bill aims to take the decision to transfer away from superintendents, whose administrator’s association says the decision should not be automatic. And from school boards, whose association says local districts already have options to educate students in recovery.
The senator says the denials in Livingston show the educators need educating on the issue.
“Most superintendents and boards of education are blind. They’re walking through life in terms of this problem with blinders. They don’t see the problem, they don’t know the solution,” Lesniak said.
With the senator’s interest in the case it now appears the Livingston school district will revisit the Vaccaro request, asking the family to sign a waiver so district officials may speak to the senator. Livingston Superintendent Christina Steffner tells NJTV News they “remain willing to work collaboratively with the senator’s office to develop sound policies in the best interest of all students in New Jersey.”
The senator says there are thousands of New Jersey teens who could benefit from his bill becoming law.