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Peer to peer: The hard truth about drugs

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AKWESASNE - The founder of a Massachusetts-based alternative high school designed to offer second chances to drug-addicted youth and several of its students presented a community forum on addiction Thursday at the Akwesasne Seniors’ Center and later at Massena Central High School.

Michelle Lipinski, who runs the Northshore Recovery High School (NRHS), and six recovering youths spoke for almost two hours to a room of 50 people about the insidious nature of drug addiction and shared their stories and thoughts on the issue during the visit to Akwesasne.

Chief Tribal Court Judge P.J. Herne said he first met Ms. Lipinski at a state police Prescription Drug Task Force meeting in Albany about 18 months ago and decided to work with Tribal Police to bring their message to the north country.

“When you hear the kids tell their story, you just see silence in the room,” Mr. Herne said. “It’s about hope at the end of the day.”

The forum comes at a time when drug use in the area, especially of prescribed and illicit opiates, is skyrocketing.

Ms. Lipinski said one of many reasons she takes to the road with her students is to address school districts’ use of zero-tolerance drug policies, which she sees as destructive to students. She said many of her pupils, including one present at the talk, use sports as a way to stay active and maintain a healthy, sober life. When a school takes that away from a student for a first-offense violation, she says her experience shows it more often than not puts the student in a position where they use more drugs more often.

“If he (NRHS student present at the forum) had no chance of playing sports again, he’d be out using today,” Ms. Lipinski said. She added that once a student is penalized under zero tolerance they can be further motivated to chemically numb themselves to deal with the stigma of being identified in the community as a drug user, which often times can mean their social groups change to those with a more destructive influence.

“If somebody’s bringing something (to school) and they’re using it to get through the day, that’s addiction,” she said, adding that addicted youth need to be turned toward positive influences, not away from them.

Mr. Herne said that mentality does not end with school policies in society.

“I agree with her 100 percent,” Mr. Herne said. “It’s putting kids in the judicial system without addressing why they’re there to begin with.”

Two of Ms. Lipinski’s students who identified themselves as Leah, 16, and Josh, 16, talked about their descent into chemical dependency and the road they set upon to get back out.

Although their stories involved different people, places, and drugs of choice, they were more alike than not.

Each said their first experience with addiction was watching their parents wrestle with it; Leah said her parents both were heroin addicts, and Josh said his father, with whom he primarily lived for a time, was a heavy drinker and used cocaine and crystal meth.

Josh said his family’s chemical struggle began when he was 7 years old and one of his brothers died.

“I didn’t know how to deal with it, and neither did anybody else,” he said, adding that was when he had his first drink.

Both said during their early years, they were bounced between family members. In Leah’s case, it was because her parents were relapsing and going in and out of jail.

Each said by high school they had dabbled in various substances beginning with marijuana and alcohol, but began taking more and more over time and expanding to other drugs.

“I found myself leaving class at the end of every period and sniffing Adderall in the bathroom,” Leah said. Adderall is a legal form of amphetamine prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She later added that her drug abuse culminated when she graduated to heroin, her parent’s substance of choice, which she swore she would never use.

“I liked the stuff that makes you trip,” Josh said, explaining he was talking about LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. “My entire life was running around with drug dealers and homeless people talking about the universe like I knew what the universe was. I was using every single day to cover up myself.”

Both of their stories culminate with being placed in some form of institutional care after being arrested (Josh said he racked up five felonies) and that lead them to discovering and enrolling in NRHS. Leah said she was in a rehab program and a friend she made there told her about NRHS. Each said they have been enrolled in the school for over a year and have stayed firmly committed to recovery the whole time.

“I just got, like, a sense of hope going to that school,” Leah said.

“The support I got at this school was amazing,” Josh said.

Both said that going on road trips cement friendships with their peers, which helps form a solid support network.

“I felt alive for the first time,” Leah said of the journey from Massachusetts to New York. “I really felt alive. There’s so much recovery can do.”

Ms. Lipinski said that some students at the school occasionally relapse, but the NRHS program is tailored to encourage them to come forward and work through it, back towards sobriety.

“When they relapse, they talk about it,” she said, adding that she recalls a particular graduation when about half of the 14 grads were under the influence, but the sober ones walked with them anyway because they decided they “didn’t want to shoot their wounded.”

Ms. Lipinski will be appearing on the podcast TEDtalks to discuss the issue of zero-tolerance drug policies in schools.

Mr. Herne gave credit to Tarbell Management for giving room and board to Ms. Lipinski and her students and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino for donating meals to them.

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