A high school designed specifically for New Jersey teenagers fighting substance abuse has opened its doors in Union.

Empty hallway
Jens Schlueter, Getty Images

The Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School, named after the state senator who spearheaded the project, is located at Kean University and will officially begin classes Nov. 1.

"This is for students who understand they have a problem with drugs and alcohol and want to be sober," said Pamela Capaci, executive director of the Roselle-based drug treatment program Prevention Links.

The Union County Vocational-Technical Schools act as the academic partner for the endeavor, while Prevention Links provides recovery support.

"The kids have math and English, but then go into a facilitative support group instead of an elective," Capaci said.

In addition to mandatory random drug screenings for all students, Prevention Links will have support counselors on-site every day.

Capaci said one of the biggest problems for teens in recovery is when they return to their regular school and are faced with the same, toxic environment. Every year in Union County, over 200 youths are sent to in-patient drug programs.

"If you think about the slogan for adults, 'Change people, places, and things,' kids can't do that," she said. "They can't just live somewhere else and they just can't go to school somewhere else. They're still kids and they need to go through their adolescent development by bonding with their peers, but they have to do it in an environment that supports a drug-free lifestyle."

Ten students are currently enrolled, but Capaci hopes the program will expand to accommodate 100 students, ultimately operating like a normal high school.

The school is funded through each student's home district, as well as from money raised by Prevention Links.

Lesniak became involved with the project after he was robbed four years ago by a pair of young men with substance abuse problems. He objected to the school being named after him, but others within the project pushed for the title.

On a national scale, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of children struggle with drug abuse.

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