House 518 Would Require Transportation and Increased Funding for Recovery High Schools – a Proven Resource in a Troubled Time

Readers may recall a number of posts we have entered over the past few years regarding Recovery High Schools. Massachusetts currently has five such high schools – in Boston, Brockton, Beverly, Worcester and Springfield – and they have each proven to be an excellent support for high school age students who are struggling to disengage from drug and/or alcohol dependence/abuse. A Recovery High School’s ability to provide a solid high school education along with appropriate services and supports to such students, in the company of peers who are struggling with the same issues, is critical to the success of this resource. The alternative – returning to the student’s home high school – is all too often disastrous, as a student’s fragile beginning toward recovery can so easily be crushed by a school district’s lack of supports while a user subculture of peers eagerly draws the student back into its mix.

As our previous posts have described, the statutes establishing and supporting Recovery High Schools have failed to require home districts to provide transportation, so only those who can make their way on their own to and from a Recovery High School can access what could be a life-saving opportunity.  The statutory scheme also falls short by setting a cap on the tuition that a home district pays that is far less than what it costs to maintain a student at a Recovery High School.

In an effort to address both the transportation omission and the lack of a sufficient tuition requirement, Representative Liz Malia of Jamaica Plain and a good number of co-sponsors have filed H518, An Act Strengthening Recovery High Schools. This proposed legislation would require transportation to be provided as though a student’s enrollment were at a regional high school, and it provides as well for a cap on tuition that is two and a half times greater than the current cap.

H518 was heard by the Education Committee on Monday, June 24, 2019.  Bob Crabtree, of counsel at KCS, offered the following written testimony in support of the initiative. We invite any readers who are interested in supporting the proposal to contact their state Senator and Representative to let them know of your support.

Testimony in support of H518, submitted June 24, 2019 to the Joint Committee on Education

Madam Chairperson and members of the Committee:

My name is Bob Crabtree and I offer this statement in support of H518, An act strengthening Recovery High Schools.

In 1972, as Research Director for this Committee under the leadership of Representative Mike Daly, the House Chairman, I had the good fortune to be involved in drafting and helping to shepherd into law Chapter 766 of the Acts of 1972.  When I entered the practice of law some years later, and co-founded the law firm now known as Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP, I took on a growing number of cases advising and representing families pursuing special education services and placements.  In that practice, my colleagues and I have encountered many students who not only struggled with learning and developmental challenges, but who also, often beginning as early as middle school, fell into serious drug and/or alcohol abuse and dependence.  There is clearly a connection in many cases: when a child’s learning, social, and emotional development needs are not sufficiently addressed in school, they fall increasingly far behind their peers.  With that decline comes a loss of self-esteem and typically an attraction to the marginal sub-cultures of their schools.  More often than not, these are sub-cultures that involve self-medication through drugs and alcohol.

Recovery high schools answer a desperate need for students who are fortunate enough to catch themselves or to be caught and redirected after falling into serious drug or alcohol abuse.  I came to know of the system of Recovery High Schools four years ago when clients called after their child had successfully bought into recovery at a program in another state and was about to return to his home in a Boston suburb.  Any recovery is fragile, but the tenuous recovery of a child like theirs would have been in serious jeopardy if the only option for schooling were for him to return to the scene where he’d fallen into alcohol dependence in the first place.  The marginal, drug- and alcohol-based peer sub-culture of his home school was waiting with open arms and there were no in-school programs that could help him consolidate his recovery or protect him from being drawn right back into drink and drugs.  The answer – and an excellent one it turned out to be – was found in Boston’s William Ostiguy High School, one of the first Recovery High Schools in the Commonwealth.

My client was lucky.  He could get back and forth to school by public transportation.  Many other students have not been so fortunate.  Because of the omission of transportation from the statute providing for Recovery High Schools, they could not require their districts to transport them. Thus, unless they could drive themselves, or their parents could drive them, or they could take public transportation, they could not access what could have been, without exaggeration, the only life-saving opportunity available to help them re-engage in their education while continuing to work themselves free of drug or alcohol dependence.

With this unacceptable omission in mind, in 2014 I drafted a proposed bill to add transportation to the statutory scheme supporting Recovery High Schools.  I have worked with administrators of Recovery High Schools and sponsoring legislators since that bill was filed in January 2015 to try to advance the proposal.  A good number of Representatives and Senators have joined to co-sponsor the legislation – and we are so grateful to the members of this Committee who are among those sponsors – but the initiative has nonetheless foundered each year since it was first filed.

Along the way, it emerged that a second, equally urgent problem must be addressed – the inadequacy of funding for this essential resource.  While school districts are rightly required to pay tuition for a student’s enrollment at a Recovery High School, the tuition is limited to a woefully inadequate cap defined by the Commonwealth’s “foundation” formula.  I leave it to the representatives of Recovery High Schools who will testify in support of H518 to speak to the details of their budgetary issues, but suffice to say, the bill’s proposal to have tuition set by each Recovery High School’s board, limited to an amount that is 2 ½ times the average foundation per-pupil, cost would go a long way toward putting this critical resource on a sound footing.

You may hear from representatives of some school districts that drug or alcohol abuse is really more of a disciplinary issue or a medical issue than an educational one and that they should not be burdened with such issues on top of the educational services they must provide to all students.  They might point to the provisions of the federal special education law by analogy, because IDEA does not include alcohol or drug dependence as a disability – an omission that districts generally take as exempting them from having to provide services to directly address alcohol or drug abuse.  As I noted at the start of this statement, however, in countless cases students fall into serious drug and/or alcohol abuse largely because they have lost a sense of themselves as persons of worth within their educational programs and among their peers.  This leads them to seek to self-medicate and to be part of a community of like-situated peers – the marginal groups within their school communities. That loss of self-esteem often follows a failure by their districts to identify and robustly address a learning disability, an emotional disability, and/or a disability affecting their developmental growth.  Administrators of Massachusetts’ Recovery High Schools have confirmed to me that a large percentage of their student populations arrive with previously unmet or inadequately met learning needs.  My colleagues in the field of special education advocacy and I would argue that IDEA’s “child find” provision should be interpreted to require that a district thoroughly evaluate a student who falls into serious drug or alcohol dependence to determine whether the student has a learning, emotional, and/or developmental disability and to address the needs that are identified through any such evaluation.

My point in this observation is that any districts that would complain about any added costs to be incurred for transportation under H518 or about the greater tuition they will be required to pay ought to look to the grudging protocols so many districts maintain for identifying and addressing learning needs based on disabilities.  One of the frequent costs of inadequately identifying or meeting a student’s needs is the loss of that student into the devastating consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.  Payment for transportation and sufficient tuition to programs that afford real support and genuine progress to kids who would otherwise be lost is a tiny price to pay in this light.

There is hardly a family anywhere in our culture that is untouched by grief over a member lost to alcohol or drugs. Let’s make sure that our Recovery High Schools, one of the few proven resources available to help kids get off and stay off of drugs and alcohol, will survive and thrive and, by their example, encourage the creation of a good many more such schools around the Commonwealth.

Thank you.

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