Austin resolved to be drunk in school on his 17th birthday. In class, he sipped steadily from a spiked water bottle. Friends in the know told inquiring teachers he just wasn't feeling well.
But a daylong bender is hard to hide, even in a suburban high school of nearly 1,200 students. The principal and police got involved. It ended badly, of course. He tested above the legal limit for intoxication in Kentucky and was cited under the juvenile code.
The day was the low point in Austin's spiral of pot, booze, hostility at home and withdrawal from the school sports he once loved. His parents, bewildered and frantic, already had tried the usual sanctions — tense encounters, groundings, trips to a counselor.
They had another choice short of the dreary trip to juvenile court. In Oldham County, Ky., the schools have paired with Our Lady of Peace psychiatric hospital in nearby Louisville in an after-school program for kids like Austin. The hospital's counselors lead the sessions, which last three hours each three times a week for six to eight weeks. They take place in a participating school's building, not a detention center or courthouse.
Austin's mother, Susan Greenrose, called the program "the answer to our prayers. We have our son back.
"On the first day I took him, he was fighting and screaming that this was the dumbest thing, and he wasn't going to do it," she said. "There was a gradual change as he continued. With every session, he seemed more at peace and at ease."
Time to build
Our Lady of Peace, part of Kentucky–One Health, began its program in Oldham County, the suburb just east of Louisville, in 2013. Last summer, the hospital won a grant of nearly $1.5 million from the state of Kentucky to expand in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, and four other adjoining counties. The hospital is working with 26 area high schools to offer the counseling programs at five locations, all of them schools.
Our Lady of Peace is one of 19 recipients of state grants for substance-abuse treatment programs, all paid for through a $32 million settlement the state's attorney general won from two pharmaceutical companies for failure to disclose risks of medications. The grant is for two years, and Our Lady of Peace is covering the costs of a third year.
Formally, the program at Our Lady of Peace is an After School Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Program, or IOP, for youths 14 to 18 years old.
The hospital has hired counselors to run the programs, said Cristi McAlister, director of business development at the hospital. The grant also pays for other program costs, including the use of vans to help participants get to the sessions and home. The hospital had three locations at the beginning of 2015 and plans to open two more soon, she said.
McAlister said the intention is to get the program running and demonstrate its value by the time the grant runs out. After that, she said, hers will be the challenge of all nonprofits — find more grants, obtain more stable revenue.
"The grant will give us time to build," she said. For the duration of the grant, she said, the program is free to participants, although many health insurance programs provide some coverage.
McAlister said most of the youths in the program were recommended for treatment by school officials to their parents. Many of the youths were caught in school with drugs, alcohol or paraphernalia. In other cases, parents approached school officials for help. All enrolling participants go through an assessment by the hospital and then get assigned to a group of 12 for their sessions.
She called it an improvement upon traditional suspensions "when lots of kids just stayed home for three days and smoked more pot."
In Oldham, the county government also provided $10,000 so that youths who have gone through juvenile court on substance-abuse matters can participate.
Janine Dewey, program director, said the after-school sessions use the Seven Challenges curriculum developed in the 1990s for youths by Robert Schwebel, a psychologist and counselor who specializes in the treatment of substance abuse in Tucson, Ariz., and used throughout the country. The lessons prompt adolescents to be honest about their use of alcohol and other drugs. The Seven Challenges ask students to contemplate the consequences of their drug use for themselves and others and to make thoughtful choices which will impact their ability to attain life goals.
Dewey said the intensity of the sessions gives the counselor and youths time to develop trust and work slowly and thoroughly through the curriculum, which is designed to get participants to examine their actions, acknowledge responsibility and understand that they have the power to change their behavior. The curriculum is a guide to free-flowing discussion, she said.
"It's not just having them sit in a classroom and hearing adult lectures on the dangers of drugs and alcohol," Dewey said. "We want them to talk honestly about themselves and their lives, and that the main issue comes down to their own choices."
Participants keep journals throughout the program, both to increase focus and to let them see their own development, she said.
Since the grant was announced, about 50 youths have gone through the program and 25 were enrolled in the winter 2014 sessions. Dewey said the counselors hold "graduation" ceremonies, which focus upon the success of the participants. They are given an open invitation to seek help from program counselors again in the future as needed. And, after graduation, a weekly continuing-help session is offered for six months.
Back in the game
Greenrose, the mother of Austin, said the sessions are long enough for the youths to develop trust in each other and their counselors. Greenrose said Austin especially credits counselor Henry Fuqua who, she said, patiently guided her son through his own realization of the risks he had been taking.
She said her son still had to accept suspension from school but was able to keep up with his studies and avoid going to court. Greenrose said she believes a major factor for her son's success was having the sessions in the familiar setting of a school.
She said Austin is doing better. He returned to sports and was the team's number-two tackle in fall 2014. He is working at the family business. She takes comfort in a line in her son's journal, when he was reflecting upon the recklessness of his behavior: "It's not worth it."
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