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US Schools Provide Alternative for Recovering Teen Addicts

A typical high school can be full of temptation for teens struggling to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. VOA's Sean Maroney takes a look at some special schools that help teenagers stay "clean" (drug-free) and sober.

Carolyn Burke is excited about her senior prom. "This is my dress!" She is in her last year of high school, but graduation is not nearly as important as the date she keeps on her cell phone.

"I've been sober three years, one month and 18 days" she declares.

Carolyn's parents describe her as a happy child who grew up too fast. By the time she was 12 (years old).

"I started smoking pot every single night. I vandalized, I stole, I had sex. I did all the stupid stuff."

Her parents watched helplessly as Carolyn seemed to spiral out of control. Her mother, Sandy says, "The pain and the anxiety about what is she doing? Where is she going with her life? How is this going to turn out? How can I fix this? How can we change this? It was horrendous."

Carolyn tried rehabilitation twice, but her parents ended up sending her here -- to Sobriety High, in the northern state of Minnesota.

Program director Judi Hanson says the school is one of eight in the state designed to be a safe haven for recovering teen addicts. "Going back to a mainstream school for a high-school student who is in recovery is like going back to a bar [for an alcoholic]."

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu says Carolyn is not alone with her story. "As early as ages eight and nine, our children are confronted with decisions about alcohol on a regular basis in many settings -- including at home and at school."

He says alcohol is the number-one drug used by students, and the main contributor in the deaths for people under age 21. "Each year, more than 5,000 deaths of people under age 21 are linked to underage drinking. Think of that! Entire college campuses wiped clean of the entire student body. Every year."

Schools like Sobriety High use group therapy and an honor system to help students stay drug-free. One sobriety student commented, "I don't get offered drugs here. It's just a better experience."

But some critics say it is hard to keep addicts, especially teens, accountable without drug tests.

Drug counselor, Paul Grehl, is one such critic. He says, "What addicts never forget is they learned how to be deceitful. They know how it works, and it's pretty easy to fall back into when they need to do it."

Carolyn continues to take life -- and her problems -- one day at a time, just as she has for the last three years, one month and 18 days.