Teen advocate pushes for drug 'recovery high school' in CNY

CAMILLUS (WSYR-TV) - Months after Governor Cuomo announced his hopes to develop recovery high schools in areas struggling with drug addiction, some advocates for teens are hoping Central New York hasn't been forgotten.

"It's almost impossible to stay sober when everybody in your social network is using," recalls Debra Ancillotti, who says she struggled with addiction as a teenager in college.

"Going to class high or being in my dorm high, it all triggered me wanting to use again. Even when I went to those places sober, I was more familiar with being high there, so it was impossible until I was plucked from that environment."

Today, Ancillotti runs a youth center in Camillus, where she's hearing more about the opioid epidemic.

Growing concern about the pressures facing her young visitors convinced Ancillotti to make a trip to Massachusetts for a day with students at Northshore Recovery High School.

"There's a reason that it has been around for over a decade and that the kids who graduate from there have a higher success rate of staying clean," she adds.

At Northshore, students still have traditional classes with art and music, alongside regular counseling with personal recovery plans, so they learn how to stay clean.

But, there's another major difference compared to traditional high schools.

"If you are in active use, they will drug test you every day. If you have been clean for awhile, it is random drug screening," Ancillotti says.

After hearing Governor Cuomo propose a similar idea, Ancillotti is leading the push to bring a recovery high school to Central New York.

She serves on a community coalition that combats issues like opioid addiction, alongside West Genesee Schools Superintendent Chris Brown.

"You might be able to come up with 30 to 40 students who might benefit from a program like this," Brown says, in reference to recovery high schools.

That means an entire building would not be necessary.

Supporters of the idea say BOCES is a natural fit to run a program in Central New York, since schools are already equipped to send students to other programs there.

But, Brown says the cost of adding specialized recovery classes may be the biggest obstacle as state lawmakers are asked to weigh the idea.

"Even if you can help to save one student and help them get their education, number one, but help them get to a point where they can get to be contributing members of society, number two, I think it is worthwhile to explore," he adds.

Brown sees more young people struggling when they transition to college, where the safety nets from home are suddenly gone and stress sets in among a new group of friends.

He wonders if a "bridge" program with support from local colleges or other institutions would be more realistic....and serve more people in that vulnerable age range.

Ancillotti, a new mom, wants a seed planted as early as possible.

"If God forbid there was ever something that my son got addicted to, wouldn't I want a recovery high school? Of course I would. Why wouldn't I want him to have every opportunity to live sober and get clean?" she says.

Questions about possible locations and timelines for a recovery high school in New York were referred to the state's Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, OASAS.

The response was concise: "Earlier this year, the Governor announced a proposal to begin developing two recovery high schools in hard-hit regions of the state. They will allow students in recovery to learn in a substance-free and supportive environment."

A spokesman said details are still being contemplated.

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