November 18, 2014

Schooled in sobriety

By Sara Brown

The teenage years are a time of excess – too many hormones, too many rules and too much desire to break out on your own. The dramatic highs and lows of adolescence make for great television, but living through them can be hell.

Peer pressure, worries about the future, and desire to succeed can overwhelm even the most well-rounded teen, but for youth who are in recovery, learning how to navigate the corridors of high school or college without relying on substances can seem impossible.

Not surprisingly, 80 percent of teens who return home after rehab relapse.

But a new breed of sober schools is sweeping the halls and clearing out some of the pressure to party and fit in. And the results speak for themselves.

The original sober high

Michael Durchslag, director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy (Peers Enjoying a Sober Education), knows that the numbers don’t look good for teens trying to overcome addiction. That’s why he believes that sober high schools are so important.

“Most of the students that come to us have been to many rehab centers,” he said.

The teens will get clean, but when they return to their normal lives – usually with the same school and same friends they had while they were addicted – they relapse. P.E.A.S.E. is dedicated to breaking that cycle.

“I think the hardest thing for students is realizing they have to rebuild their social circles,” Durchslag said. “They often want to have their cake and eat it too.” 

P.E.A.S.E, in Minneapolis, Minn., is the oldest sober school in the country. It was founded in 1989 and is a part of the Minnesota Transitions Charter School Students from any school district in the state can attend school and live on campus.

Along with taking the standard high school courses, students participate in a sobriety check-in twice a week, daily peer support meetings, sober social activities and monthly parent meetings. There is a chemical dependency counselor on site full-time to meet with students and parents.

Students have plenty of support, but there are also a lot of expectations. Teens take a sobriety pledge when they begin at P.E.A.S.E. They promise to keep a 95 percent attendance rate, hold themselves accountable, tell the school if they relapse and voluntarily withdraw if they do not adhere to the pledge.  

Despite all the formal systems in place, Durchslag says that the support of their peers is the biggest help to teens.

“The relationships the students make with each other are so important,” he said. “They have people now in their lives who want to be sober like them and they can lean on each other.”

The hardest thing for some students is saying goodbye to their old friends, but it is often necessary for their success in recovery.

“Many of them don’t want to do it,” Durchslag said. “Eventually over time, they see they need to if they want to remain sober.”

In addition to their peers, the teens at sober schools can rely on the teachers and staff members, many of whom are in recovery themselves.

 “I have been in recovery for many years now,” Durchslag said. “We speak a common language. I've been there, so I know in a small way what they are going through.” 

For Durchslag, who has been working at P.E.A.S.E. since 1995, running a sober high school is a dream job.

“With my background in education and experience with addiction, this position is sort of a match made in heaven,” he added. 

His biggest piece of advice for his students is to be patient, and be willing to try.

“Drugs will always be there. Try sobriety,” he said. “See where it takes you. Give it some time. You can always go back to your old lifestyle if you want to.”

Most of the students at P.E.A.S.E. are willing to follow his advice. In fact, P.E.A.S.E. has an 87 percent graduation rate, which is above the national average.

Usually by the time they come to us, they are ready to start that new lifestyle,” Durchslag added.

To read about sober schooling, including sober college campuses and the future of drug- and alcohol-free education, see the latest issue of Renew 


Other articles you might be interested in…

Learning and healing in the great outdoors

Sobriety: Getting close and personal 

Up in smoke: 

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