Nancy Peter (left) and her husband Kevin Peter in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Peter.)

This is the first article in a series that examines adolescence and addiction. Instead of focusing on the growing problem, it attempts to make the public aware of some the programs that are attempting to address addiction and provide hope for those who struggle with addiction every day.

by Sue Ann Rybak

Mt. Airy resident Nancy Peter, 61, is trying to break the silence of addiction by sharing her son’s struggle with the disorder.

Peter, director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, said her son began using drugs as a freshman at Central High School.

“Our son is very smart and a good athlete,” she said. “He quickly became enamored with the drug scene. He used to hang out with a lot of seniors and do drugs with them. When we found out he was smoking marijuana, we sent him to rehab after school in Center City. The summer before 10th grade, we found out that he was dealing drugs. He was selling marijuana and prescription drugs such as his ADHD medicine.

“We got a call from Central High School saying your son was arrested. He was in jail. He got caught with about $140 worth of marijuana and about $250 in cash.”

Peter said because she works in education she and her husband had access to information that most parents don’t have.

“Nobody did us any favors,” she said. “Nobody bent any rules. We have colleagues that work in The School District and Family Court. We knew when we needed a lawyer and what to expect,” she said. “In court, he got deferred adjudication, which meant that if he stayed clean and sober for four months his record would be clean and expunged.”

The schools were not as forgiving, however. She said none of the other public or private schools they applied to would accept their 15-year-old son – in part because of their zero-tolerance drug policy.

“I felt like the school district was very unforgiving,” she said. “Ironically, I felt like the court system was more interested in my son’s rehabilitation then the schools were. Just before my son was expelled from Central, we were able to enroll him in The Bridge Way School. It was the only option for us. None of the other public or private schools he applied to would accept him.”

The Bridge Way School, 4101 Freeland Ave. in Roxborough, is the first high school in the Philadelphia area designed for students who are in recovery for substance abuse.

“Then in January, we got a call from the school saying our son had been selling LSD to Bridge Way students,” Peter said.

After talking to Jake Neff, a therapist in Chestnut Hill who specializes in adolescents with addiction, and Rebecca Bonner, executive director of Bridge Way School, they decided to send their son to Caron Treatment Centers.

The road to recovery was not easy. After five months of intensive therapy, she said her son came home “a different person.”

“Even though he was clean and sober for five months and was in therapy, none of the five public or five private schools in the area would accept him,” she said. “We could have afforded to pay full tuition to anyone of the local private schools, but his only option coming out of rehab was our neighborhood high school, which was Martin Luther King High School, or a therapeutic boarding school.”

Thankfully, she said her son, who turned 16 while in Caron’s treatment facility, was able to return to Bridge Way and did “amazing.”

“At Bridge Way, students support each other in their sobriety,” she said. Our son did really well academically there and ended up graduating a year early from Bridge Way.”

Peter, who is now a board member of Bridge Way School, hopes to spread the word about the recovery high school.

“We were fortunate because we knew about and could afford Bridge Way,” she said. “I think if my son had gotten into one of those other schools – he probably would have started using again.”

Research has shown that adolescents who participated in an inpatient program for 30 days have a high rate of relapsing. According to studies, eight out of ten students who return to their old school will relapse after six months.

“The day my son got out out of rehab was the day of Bridge Way’s graduation the year before him,” she said. “We went right from rehab to the graduation, and all the kids ran up and hugged him. I think it was really amazing that they were so supportive of his sobriety.”

Today, she said her son is three years clean and sober.

“He just finished his freshman year at Temple University,” she said. “He is studying business and hopes to become an entrepreneur.”

His future is bright, but she worries about other parents struggling to help their children overcome addiction. It’s the reason her family decided to share their son’s struggle with substance abuse disorder. The Peters want to make sure all parents and guardians are informed of their rights and have access to all the resources available to them such as the School Discipline Advocacy Service, a coalition of law students who advocate on behalf of students and parents at school disciplinary hearings.

“Despite all of our resources, our connections, and having a comfortable income, we still found the school district and court system confusing and daunting,” Peter said. “We realized that it must be that much more daunting for families who don’t know who to contact, cannot make a phone call during work hours, do not have money to hire a lawyer, etc. We wanted to share our story so that all families have more available resources than we did. We want all families dealing with addition know that they are not alone.”

Part 2 of this series will run next week.

Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at sueann@chestnuthilllocal.com or 215-248-8804.

This article was updated on May 26, 2017. An earlier version erroneously stated that Peter’s son relapsed after 4 weeks of therapy. He did not relapse. An earlier version of this article also erroneously stated that Nancy Peter was currently the director of Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Philadelphia.

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