When clients of Phoenix House visit East Hampton High School, it’s usually on invitation from Jim Stewart, the school’s longtime health teacher, who wants his students to understand how substance abuse, treatment, and recovery look and feel.
“I have been told by students it’s one of the best classes of the semester,” Mr. Stewart said this week.
Now, the East Hampton School District and Phoenix House, a nonprofit network of substance abuse treatment and recovery facilities with nine locations from East Hampton to New York City, are taking another approach to make sure youth here understand the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. With an agreement reached last week between the two, Phoenix House’s licensed clinicians will be available to the high school as needed, as an additional counseling resource.
Specifically, according to Sara Smith, the high school principal, they will lend a hand when students are struggling with substance abuse, or are at risk of it. The new approach is a part of the school discipline program called “restorative practices,” in which students talk through their actions with professionals, make amends, and are guided to make better choices.
“Rather than rely solely on a disciplinary action, we would try to address the behavior and the substance abuse itself by adding substance abuse counseling for that student,” Ms. Smith said Monday. Phoenix House “has been a longstanding program in our community, and we figured it would only make sense to formally partner with them. They were incredibly willing to do so.”
The new approach was not born out of a high demand for drug or alcohol-related intervention, Ms. Smith said, but rather as acknowledgement that “youth are sometimes prone to risk-taking.”
Adam Maslowski, Phoenix House’s director of outpatient services and internship programming, visited the East Hampton School Board’s Jan. 3 meeting. “The statistics show clearly that early intervention works,” he told the board. “Students that initiate use of substances at an earlier age have a vastly higher likelihood of developing a substance use disorder issue.”
Phoenix House’s approach to intervention and prevention, he continued, is “multipronged.” The goal is to “motivate an individual who is having an issue with substances to participate and engage in and retain treatment, while also minding and caring for the individual concern and significant others in the family.”
Ms. Smith said Monday that “in light of Covid, we have seen an opportunity to refocus, improve, and add onto our mental health resources for students, and we saw this as one more way to make sure that students are getting the help that they need.”
Ann Marie Foster, president and chief executive officer of Phoenix Houses of New York and Long Island, called the school district “bold” for its willingness to take on this partnership. It is the first formal agreement the organization has worked out with a public school district, and is a model they hope to build on in the future.
“This is where it starts. It needs to start in school, to begin to have those tough conversations with our young people and their families about substance use,” Ms. Foster said. “We’re trying to save lives. That’s the most important thing. . . . The more we talk about it, the more we remove the stigma from these issues, because every family is affected by this.”
Phoenix House clients will continue to visit Mr. Stewart’s classes to talk directly to students. In fact, there are classroom visits scheduled for tomorrow.
“They are prepared with questions for the clients from Phoenix House,” Mr. Stewart said by email. “The discussion is always eye, ear, and mind-opening.”