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With new gym and principal, Nevada's only recovery school knows it can help more teens

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About two-thirds of students try alcohol by their senior year. That comes from the CDC, which also reported in 2019 that drug use in Nevada mirrors that of the rest of the nation.

Also from the CDC: The rate of access to illegal drugs in schools here is about 10% higher than the rest of the country, with about 25% of the students reported being offered, given or buying those drugs on school property.

And then there’s addiction: Las Vegas police reported 218 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021. That's about three times as many as 2018's 64 fentanyl deaths. In the last two years, 16 of those deaths were of youths under 18.

So in Clark County, a small high school north of downtown is working to help students with addiction. Mission High School is the first recovery high school in the state; and in the nation, it was the first to be funded by taxpayers.

Frank Slaughter is a former UNLV boxing coach and namesake of Mission High School’s new “Slaughter House” fitness room. It just opened in the Spring. Also with us is Jeff Horn, one of the school's founders, and Angela Nickels, the school's new principal. 

The school was founded in 2017 by three men, including Horn, a former Clark County School District administrator who has been sober since 1988. He became a teacher and rose the ranks to school associate superintendent, but said through those years, he realized he needed to publicize people in recovery “doing amazing things here.”

The other co-founders are Donn Jersey and Joe Engle, who are also both sober.

“Everybody has that connection with addiction either personally, or somebody they know and love. And so it was very easy to talk to leaders in our community, the school district, individual supporters to get them on board and help us with this process,” Horn said.

Funding for the school was approved unanimously by the school board.

“We had the room at the school board was completely packed. Testimony after testimony of how this would be positive in our community came through, the motion was made, it was passed, it was just an exhilarating situation to see all school board members vote unanimously for that,” he said.

From there, they upgraded a to-be-bulldozed building and prepared to reopen it. Today, the school is still supported by the district.

Nickels joined the school as principal this summer after years as an educator, most recently at Western High School. She said the next generation is our investment, and she believes she can help them see what’s next for them.

“Sometimes kids that come from challenging backgrounds, they have a lot of trauma, and they don't always see, ‘What can I do next?’ And whether it's through skill, whether it's just through luck, whether it's through the experiences, I've been very good at that in terms of how I believe in you,” she said. “Our kids are so very, very capable. And I wanted to be a part of making them recognize what the next steps are, and their sobriety is absolutely the most important thing.”

Engle is the founder of nonprofit There’s No Hero In Heroin, which partners with the school. Nickels said it gives the students an extension beyond the school day.

She said her goal this year is to get a feel for the campuses and see where it can grow. She’ll look into where they as a community can “tap into other communities” to drive the school forward.

At school, all the students want to be in recovery, she said. The campus is staffed with two family counselors, as well as a drug recovery specialist, among others.

“Even with their struggles, there's a sense of fearlessness about them, that they are willing to put in the effort and … just sometimes showing up to school is a risk. It's a challenge. And they face that challenge every single day,” Nickels said.

Sometimes they’re referred by other recovery programs, counselors, and the juvenile justice system, but sometimes they’re there on word of mouth. Each day at school, they hold recovery meetings.

“The kids share stuff that would make us stumble and fall, like truly would make us stumble and fall, and they take ownership of it, they take responsibility of it,” she said. “And they look toward what the next step is, how they can get more positives around them. … They’ve got that tenacity, that is inspiring.”

About a dozen or so students graduate from the school each year, Horn said.

“Sounds like a small number,” he said. “But remember, we’re talking about individual lives. Each one of these lives have been changed for the better, has and will forever know that there's another way and they don't have to use and they have a future. Now those numbers are small, but they're growing.”

Frank Slaughter, a former boxing coach, recently opened the Slaughter House Fitness Room on the small campus. Before the gym opened this past spring, students were completing physical education online.

Through donors, it’s outfitted with UFC-quality equipment to give the kids an “energy release.”

Slaughter said the gym gives students a fun element to inspire them to come to school each day. He has big hopes of expanding the program, saying a small amount of funding could help pay for new training programs. He also hopes to partner with local sports stars.

“I'm a piece of the puzzle. The big piece of the puzzle, of course, is the sobriety. And the other piece of the puzzle is graduation. And I just want to offer one piece of that puzzle that will inspire them to come to school every day,” he said.

Right now, he wants people to know what the school is doing.

“There are many kids in this valley that could be serviced by the school, more kids than then we have the facility to do this,” Slaughter said. “We start with one kid, one person, one life is worth what we're doing. And that's what makes my effort feel good.”

Horn said anyone who goes into recovery reaches that decision individually, but at Mission High School, they’re wrapped with “love and support so that they can find recovery.”

Nickels said they know they can be of service to “a lot more” students in CCSD.

She said for outsiders it’s “not so much, ‘I don’t care,’ but, ‘I don’t know how’ more so than anything else.” While they’ve got great partnerships, she said there may be others out there who want to help but don’t know which gift they have to give, even something as simple as human connection.

“For anybody out there who's suffering with addiction, get on that hotline, go to a meeting, ask for help, ask anybody. If you're a student, go to your teacher, go to an adult, and say you need help, ask for help,” Horn said. “There is hope out there and we have it every day, see it every day at Mission High School.”

Frank Slaughter, founder of Slaughter House fitness room at Mission High School, former UNLV boxing coach;  Jeff Horn, retired Clark County School District administrator, co-founder of Mission High School;  Angela Nickels, principal, Mission High School

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Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.