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Why MTV’s ’16 and Recovering’ Principal Doesn’t Want to See More Recovery High Schools

Michelle Lipinski is trying to ”change the language“ surrounding teen addiction, one episode of her cable docuseries at a time

In the six years that Michelle Lipinski has been principal of Northshore Recovery High School, she’s helped 300 Boston teens get diplomas while struggling with substance abuse. But despite the “16 and Recovering” lead administrator’s successes, she doesn’t want to see any more schools like hers open.

And no, it’s not a territorial thing.

“It’s hard to start one of these schools,” Lipinski told TheWrap.

Knowing that, Lipinski’s message is to “give permission for teachers and counselors and para-professionals who connect with children every day in a deeper way to be able to see them and have conversations, and not have leadership say, ‘You know what, you need to discipline them because they’re bad.'”

Lipinski says she invited MTV’s cameras into her school for the four-part docuseries to change the way public schools respond to kids struggling with addiction, shifting the focus away from traditional forms of punishment.

She wants teachers in traditional high schools to “go up against their leadership and say, ‘We’re going to do this differently.'”

At most public high schools, the typical consequence for a kid who shows up to class under the influence of drugs is suspension, sometimes being kicked off of sports teams and out of after school clubs, Lipinski said. From her experience, those kids end up leaving their schools and going to institutions — or if they’re lucky, a school like hers. But that type of hard-disciplinary response is the exact opposite of what they really need.

“Nationally, the students that are being suspended are some of the most vulnerable students,” she said. “I mean, my students will tell you that they are all disciplined for being high in school, but they’re getting support. Suspending them for 10 days will just make their addiction worse.”

“16 and Recovering” director Steve Liss has seen how well Lipinski’s alternative disciplinary methods work first-hand.

“If we could have punished our way out of the addiction crisis, we would have done so a long time ago,” Liss said. “Probably the thing that most impressed me about Michelle’s approach was that she never gives up on a kid.”

“What’s the point of suspending a child who comes to school under the influence?” he added. “You send them home to either a functional family that’s at their wit’s end because they don’t have the resources to deal with this, or even worse to a dysfunctional family. There’s nothing to be accomplished. So Michelle uses every resource at her disposal to help that child, whether it’s keeping the child in school under the right circumstances or finding the child treatment.”

Rather than sending them away like outcasts, Lipinski said the most effective method is to treat the illness of addiction with love and understanding.

“I want to see people treat these students differently. If somebody is coming in under the influence, it’s not, ‘What did you do,’ it’s ‘What happened to you?'” she said. “I think we have to change the language.”

“16 and Recovering” premieres Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 9/8c on MTV.