Virginia prepares to launch its first recovery high school

The Chesterfield program aims to educate students with substance use disorders
Chesterfield County is preparing to launch Virginia’s first recovery high school this August....
Chesterfield County is preparing to launch Virginia’s first recovery high school this August. Part of the funding for the program will go toward transportation for students across the region who want to attend the program.(Chesterfield County Public Schools, Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jul. 5, 2022 at 7:05 AM EDT
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By the time Libbie Roberts graduated from Thomas Dale High School in Chesterfield County, she was what she described as a “full-blown addict.”

It had started with opioids, liberally prescribed by a family doctor to treat her softball-related injuries. Roberts still remembers the terrifying moment when, at 13, she realized she was dependent on the drugs.

“One day, I was feeling sick,” she said. “I had the shakes, the sweats, nausea, vomiting — I thought it was the flu.” Her parents took her to the doctor, who used the opportunity to refill her depleted prescriptions. Within 15 minutes after taking the pills, Roberts started feeling better.

“That’s when I knew,” she said. “Immediately, I felt guilty and ashamed, like something was wrong with me.”

If she had known about treatment options — or if opioids had been discussed in the 1990s the same way they are today — Roberts said she might have told her family. Instead, she hid her addiction throughout high school and eventually turned to heroin when prescription opioids became too expensive.

That experience of isolation is why Roberts, now 40, has been one of the most vocal advocates for a new recovery high school set to open in Chesterfield this August. Virginia’s latest two-year budget allocates just over $1.3 million in start-up funding for the program, a pilot that will be open to any student recovering from a substance use disorder in 11 counties around central and southern Virginia.

As a model, recovery schools have existed since the 1970s, when a few treatment centers and at least two public school districts launched educational programs specifically for students with addiction. But they’ve continued to expand across the country, especially with the advent of the opioid crisis. Andrew Finch, an associate professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools, says there are currently at least 43 active recovery high schools in 21 states, with two more expected to open this year.

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NBC12 is a partner with The Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news...
NBC12 is a partner with The Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.(Virginia Mercury)

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