Road to recovery: Oregon invests in helping teens struggling with substance abuse

Oregon state lawmakers made a major investment in giving high schoolers struggling with substance abuse a second chance.
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 8:53 AM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - In a bitterly divided legislative session, Oregon state lawmakers came together and made a major investment in giving high schoolers struggling with substance abuse a second chance.

House Bill 2767 passed with bipartisan support sets aside nearly $2.6 million to set in motion the creation of nine recovery high schools across the state over the next six years.

Right now in Oregon, the only recovery high school where students are enrolled is Harmony Academy in Lake Oswego.

Sammy Ems, 19, was part of the first class to be enrolled at Harmony Academy in 2019. The school is free to attend, and serves 17 school districts in the metro area. Ems says Harmony Academy offered her a space to heal and grow after developing a dependance on alcohol after the loss of her father in her early teens. The drinking got her in trouble, both in and out of school.

With the help of extended family that took her under their wing, Ems says Harmony offered her the hope she desperately needed.

”This was so different it was like every single day for the next three years I’m going to come there and I’m going to be around people who are also excited to be sober,” she said.

Ems said her time at Harmony was hard work but worthwhile, and says staff treat students in recovery with compassion but also hold them accountable to attend school.

”There are classes like any normal high school, but we also have recovery groups,” she said.

Recovery groups that Ems and staff say happen daily. Ems says while Harmony has changed her life for the better, the vulnerability she experienced initially took some getting used to.

”When you’re a kid and you’re doing the wrong thing, your parents don’t trust you anymore and, I didn’t have trust anywhere in my life until I went to Harmony,” she said. “And it was like, here are all these people who think like me, feel like me, and have gone through the same things as me.”

Chellsee Gould’s daughter also was impacted by Harmony Academy. Gould says she credits Harmony with saving her daughter’s life.

“It was like I could breathe,” said Gould. “Because there really wasn’t anything out there. She would run away and I would call the cops to help, and there really wasn’t anything.”

Back in March, both Ems and Gould gave emotional testimony in front of the State House Committee on Education, sharing how the recovery high school model needs to be more widely accessible statewide.

According the Oregon Recovery High School Initiative, Oregon ranks 48th out of 50 states in the country for teens needing but not receiving access to drug treatment services.

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For students, alumni, and their families, recovery high schools create a path to healing they otherwise may not find anywhere else in society. Gould says her daughter grew so much as a person, and is on a path to recovery that at one time, Gould did not think was possible.

“She found the people that saw her for who she was, and she wasn’t judged by the things that she maybe had done in her past or anything that had happened,” said Gould. “But who she is as a person, who she is on the inside. And really, empathy is the killer of shame.”

Now that House Bill 2767 is law, the next steps are for the Oregon Department of Education to gather officials from the state health department, the alcohol drug and policy commission, and local public and mental health agencies, to create a plan to establish more recovery high schools in Oregon.

Currently, the Multnomah Education Service District is working on setting up a new recovery high school called Rivercrest Academy. It’s unclear at this time when that school will start accepting students.