In West Virginia’s opioid crisis, a new high school will serve teens in recovery
In West Virginia, the state hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, kids haven’t been immune to the problem, and it isn’t easy to get help.
This year, there have been 2,720 emergency room visits from kids 19 and under related to overdoses, according to West Virginia Office of Drug Control data.
The office also reported 1,168 suspected overdoses in that same age range in 2023, as reported by emergency medical services staff.
Tina Ramirez, director of Great Rivers Regional System for Addiction Care within the Marshall Health Division of Addiction Sciences, said she knew a high school freshman in Boone County who started using methamphetamine as early as 9 years old.
“It’s not just a drug issue — it’s a lack of hope issue,” said Ramirez, whose own brother began struggling with substance abuse as a teenager. “They think, ‘I’m never getting out of it so I might as well just start doing it now.’”
When kids need help, there’s a shortage of treatment beds and mental health facilities — sometimes forcing teens to go out of state for services. Teens in most treatment facilities nationwide don’t receive the appropriate medication for opioid addiction or developmentally appropriate treatment.
And, in a state with one of the highest child poverty rates, families can’t always afford treatment.
A new school in West Virginia hopes to be a part of a new chapter for West Virginia, often called the opioid epicenter, by providing a safe, supportive and affordable environment for students in recovery.
Modeled after 45 similar programs across the country, the state’s first recovery high school is set to open in January in Kanawha County. It could provide a model for other parts of the state, including those hit hardest by the drug epidemic, to help teens in their own communities.
“If young people know recovery high school is an option and there are teens in recovery, it will be inspiring for those kids [who] don’t necessarily see that there is a different option,” said Susie Mullens, program coordinator for West Virginia Collegiate Recovery Network. “I think it communicates that they’re important and valued.”
She added, “We’re not going to have grandparents for the next generation because we’re losing that generation.”
Mullens and Ramirez are two of the people helping to develop the recovery high school, along with the Putnam Well Coalition and the Regional Family Resource Network. The project has been in the works for a few years.
The school model is designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder and/or mental illness — together they’re known as a co-occuring disorder.
The school won’t be court-ordered, like the state’s drug and family courts, but rather, it will rely on students voluntarily signing up for the environment.
Probation officers can’t use it as an alternative to sentencing, Ramirez said.
“It has to be 100% voluntary,” she emphasized.
Recovery first, academics second
The recovery high school, which will open in a church in St. Albans, will have staff focused on educating and supporting students in their recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders. They’ll also help students meet state requirements for a state-recognized high school diploma.
“Recovery first and academics are second in this high school model,” Ramirez said.
There will be support for the students’ families, too, and a few students have already shown interest in signing up.
The school will work as a microschool, which operates like a one-room schoolhouse. Rameriz said that she hopes students will find electives they’re interested in, including gardening or welding, and they’ll try to provide the classes.
“Whatever their needs are, I want to customize it to them,” she said.
There’s no set tuition yet. Students will be able to use the Hope Scholarship, which gives students roughly $4,400 in tax-payer money to offset costs. Newly-expanded guidelines include mircoschools as an authorized Hope expense, and the new recovery school will fall under that umbrella, according to Ramirez.
Full scope of kids in substance abuse unknown
Ahead of the target launch in early 2024, the school is still in need of academic staff and funding.
The school will be funded completely by grants and donations, Ramirez said. Grants that target substance abuse work can be highly competitive.
“The biggest need is looking for a director to oversee [grants and fundraising],” she said.
The school hopes to attract more students, too, though both Ramirez and Mullens emphasized that they don’t want students being forced to attend.
The school, though not limited to only Kanawha County students, won’t offer overnight stays.
There is hope that the program will expand into other counties so more kids in recovery could have the opportunity to finish high school in a supportive environment.
“I do see it taking off, and I do see a lot of interest,” Ramirez said.
It’s a safer and more appropriate environment than alternative schools that target discipline issues or the kids’ neighborhood schools. “We know within hours they’re back at school, they’re offered drugs,” Mullens said.
The kids possibly return back to homes that are experiencing generational drug use, as well.
The women said the data on how many kids are struggling with addiction and youth overdoses in West Virginia are far under-reported — a combination of parents not wanting the information shared with medical professionals, school administrators failing to report they used Narcan on a child among other factors.
At least 76 overdoses in kids from 2015-2021 were fatal, according to the WVODC.
Opioid use disorder is a leading cause of death among youth in the U.S.
Despite the years of the opioid epidemic — and the countless local and national articles that have highlighted the problem — and campaigns encouraging people to ask for help, stigma still persists around substance abuse, Ramirez said.
“I’ve seen the stigma. There’s judgment in being a treatment provider for this population,” Mullens said.
Ramirez added, “We’re never going to get the help we need without putting the full truth out there.”