Las Vegas Sun

June 27, 2019

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Students taking recovery ‘one day at a time’ at Mission High in Las Vegas

Mission High School

Steve Marcus

A mural is shown on the side of the office portable at Mission High School Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems.

Mission High School

A covered area is shown at Mission High School, poses at the school Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems. Launch slideshow »

One Las Vegas teen could only live at home if she fed her mother’s drug habit. Another loved his meth-addicted father unconditionally, even though the man beat him every day.

A different teen was loved at home but was only alive because he was “too scared” to put a gun to his head, he said.

Now, the recovering drug addicts are breaking free from their destructive past thanks in part to Mission High School.

The central Las Vegas school, which opened in 2017, is tailored to students with history of drug and substance abuse and dependency. It’s the first high school of its kind in the United States that is fully funded with public money.

The campus is tucked away near Veterans Memorial Drive and Las Vegas Boulevard North and was home to 47 full-time students during the past school year. “Where our Mission is Recovery, Relationships & Rigor,” is painted on a blue building. A message on its steel door reminds the students “You are Never Alone.”

Similar to other high schools in the Clark County School District, the students learn and test in math, English, science and social studies. But those tests aren’t the lone ones of importance: They are all drug tested regularly. Failing a drug test isn’t an immediate expulsion, as the school has extended second chances for many teens, knowing this could be their last chance to get an education.

Certainly, graduation is the goal, but the school’s success is also measured by the students’ willingness to work toward their recovery, especially considering that many students initially can’t imagine themselves in a cap and gown, said Principal Barbara Collins. Students are guided by six teachers, a drug and alcohol specialist, a social worker, and therapists of family counseling and mental health.

“To see them walk across the stage is so much more than just their education,” Collins said.

Students can easily relate to some of the staff members, because they too are recovering addicts, including the school’s drug and alcohol counselor, Rene Rehmel, who still attends 12-step meetings.

“We’re trying to break the cycle,” Rehmel said. “By providing them the support here in the school, we have kids graduating. We have kids that are staying clean, and now they have goals. They have purpose.”

Student referrals cycle through a county juvenile assessment center called The Harbor, as well as the juvenile justice system and other high schools. To be admitted, students are interviewed and complete an evaluation process. Their parents need to commit to staying involved and participating in their child’s counseling, said Collins, a veteran educator in the school district.

“These kids need support,” she said, noting that most suffer from sort of trauma. “And their support can’t end at 6 o’clock when we leave campus.”

Many of the teens rave about the school, saying they learn order, purpose and a sense of responsibility. More important, they realized they are loved and have a support system.

Click to enlarge photo

Maraya, a student at Mission High School, poses at the school Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems.

Maraya, who has been clean for more than two years, was in the school’s inaugural class. Many of them graduated May 24 as part of a 12-student class. To protect their privacy, this story only uses their first names.

“It gets better, but harder,” Maraya said. “We get to see life as it is now, but it’s like we don’t have that drug to go to anymore.”

She wants to serve in the Air Force or U.S. Marine Corps. But first she has to continuing managing the addiction, constantly mulling the consequences of getting high: “Do I really want to go to my job and be wasted?”

Then there’s accountability and the fear of letting herself and others down, she said. “Do I really want to come here and be embarrassed to say I relapsed?”

She quickly answered her own question: “No.”

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Khara, a student at Mission High School, poses at the school Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems.

Khara had never known a life outside of drugs. Her mother had always been addicted to them, she said. At age 12, Khara consumed alcohol for the first time. Eventually, she said, her mother introduced her to meth.

“My mom would kick me out when I didn’t have drugs,” said Khara, who also graduated last month. “I was the one mainly keeping a roof over my head and trying to feed my mom’s habit and my habit all at the same time.”

Khara was referred to Mission High after stints in jail and rehab. She went to live with her dad’s parents and cut ties with her mother. She relapsed 13 months into the program, yet staff and her peers did not admonish her like she’d imagined.

“When I came in and opened up about it, they weren’t judgmental,” she said. “They just loved me and (they’d) say I was all going to be OK.”

Khara is committed to recovery and learning “how to be a kid because I never really got to sit down and play with dolls or go out and have fun or get to really ride bikes,” she said. “And being here has helped me learn how to have a stable mind and handle situations in the proper manner instead of getting out and getting loaded and creating hell.”

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Landynn, a student at Mission High School, poses at the school Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems.

Landynn, who has been in the program for about six months, is learning to feel again. Landynn picked up alcohol by age 7 and marijuana within the next three years, he said. By the time he was 13, he was consuming and snorting prescription pills.

He had a father whom he adored. “I trusted him with my life,” he said. “He used to ... beat me ... every day I came back from school.”

Drugs kept him apathetic: “I kept on burying this stuff, burying this stuff, and I was just nothing,” he said. “I was just evil.”

At his other school, he said, no one cared if he didn’t show up.

It’s different at Mission High, he said. They regularly ask him about himself and genuinely care about his recovery, he added. Landynn wants to “help kids to be sober,” but first he needs to go to college. He’ll return to the school in the fall.

A day over his first-year sober anniversary, Giovanni described himself as a recovering alcoholic with a history of “heavy” opioid use. He recalled going through detox and shaking in class. “I struggled a lot.”

His path with alcohol began when he was 11, Giovanni said.

Marijuana followed soon after. “It’s like I fell in love with changing the way I feel,” he said.

Opioids came next after he snagged his mother’s Vicodin prescription. “I was just numbing myself,” Giovanni said. “I didn’t like feeling. I was OK with not feeling.”

Click to enlarge photo

Giovanni, a student at Mission High School, poses at the school Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Mission High School is the only school in the Clark County School District dedicated to taking in youth with substance abuse problems.

Then the thought of taking his life began to creep in. It was a constant, he said. He’d considered it every day, but it felt “so surreal.”

When he went missing from campus one day, staff members immediately began to blow his phone up and took to the streets to search for him. And when he was arrested, they took him back into the program. He, too, is a graduate

“I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m happy that I’m here,” he said.

And there’s plenty of space for those in a similar situation to join. The thought that there is an unknown number of teens in the valley who could use a place like Mission High bothers Collins. She said 41 students are scheduled to be enrolled when a new school year begins in August.

For more information, visit missionhighschool.ccsd.net or call 702-799-7880.

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