From his office in the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, U.S. District Court Judge William S. Duffey Jr. can look down at the roof of the Georgia Dome and the gritty neighborhoods that surround the arena.
Not far away, on English Avenue, Duffey met three heroin users who helped direct the focus of his work on the nation's drug enforcement policy.
Their sad stories would start Duffey on a journey that would take him to Kennesaw State University, where President Daniel S. Papp would embrace a program for students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
KSU's Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery gives students who are in recovery peer support and addiction education. At the same time, the students remain in a mainstream college environment.
The center, which started in 2007 with three students, has seen 131 students come through the program, including 55 currently enrolled, said director Teresa Wren Johnston.
She said the GPA within the center was 3.14 for the last academic year compared with 3.01 for KSU's overall student body.
The center has graduated 25 students, and 10 others have transferred to other schools, Johnston said. Students outside the program also come in "asking for help in their active substance use."
The center's growth has caught the attention of other schools.
"Duke is looking at starting a program. So is North Carolina. Penn State has one. Michigan has a program," Duffey said. "This movement is at a tipping point. Your school won't get stigmatized by implementing one. In fact, they get applauded."
A novel idea
Duffey, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2004, was still the U.S. attorney in Atlanta when he first heard about a unique way to help students recovering from addiction.
During his three-year tenure in that position, he worked with then-DEA head Karen Tandy and Mike Shelby, then-U.S. attorney in Houston (now deceased), to help develop the national drug enforcement policy.
"I really felt drawn to coming up with a strategy to [fight] the cartels that were bringing drugs into the United States," Duffey said. "There was a point that it became clear that we had to do some demand reduction."
Local, state and federal law enforcement groups joined forces to target street-level drug dealing. One day in the company of local police, Duffey visited English Avenue for a firsthand look at the damage done by heroin sellers and buyers. There he observed the arrests of three people.
First was a woman in her late 20s. Duffey recalls that when he asked her why she was there she told him that she had just left her probation officer and found the experience so upsetting that she needed "relief."
Asked the same question, a man in his 60s told Duffey, "Look, I've been doing this all my life. This is my life. This is not the first time I've been arrested and it won't be the last. This is just me."
The third to be arrested was a man in his 40s, arrested in his car—a Cadillac Escalade—with his wife and two children in tow. "He didn't say very much," Duffey recalled. "I think he was terribly embarrassed."
"So here are these three people from totally different walks of life. And I thought, demand reduction really is treatment."
As Duffey, Tandy and Shelby talked about how to approach the issue from a treatment focus, Tandy had an idea. A graduate of Texas Tech, she told Duffey about a program there run by Kitty Harris that allowed college kids to simultaneously pursue recovery and their educations. Duffey called Harris.
"We ended up having an hour conversation about what she was doing," Duffey said. "[Harris] had seen these kids work incredibly hard to be in recovery, but then they don't know where to go and they certainly don't know if they can ever get back to school. Most of them had used up all their money in treatment. They're viewed as losers. Most of them have tried college and failed at it."
Harris' program was for students who were confirmed in recovery. There had to be some evidence of that either from a sponsor or a therapist. They had to have six months of sobriety. She told Duffey their graduation rates were "off-the-charts high," and most of them went on to graduate school.
Duffey and his wife, Betsy, flew to Texas Tech to check out the program. "I'd never done anything like that—going to visit somebody I didn't know," he said. "Kitty was so passionate about what she was doing. She explained how the real beauty was in kids holding each other accountable but really living full college lives. It really was a compelling picture of what peer-to-peer support would be."
When the Duffeys returned home their first thought was, "This has to be somewhere in Georgia." It wasn't.
Harris sent them home with a replication model that provided guidance on what the program would look like and what resources were needed. The Duffeys took the idea to two public Georgia universities, which Duffey will not name, where they received disappointing responses.
"The first school had an enforcement model," Duffey said. "You get in caught once, we'll pay for some therapy for you. You get caught twice you're suspended. You get caught three times and you're out."
At another school, he said the dean liked the program and said it would be valuable. "He called me a month or so later and said, 'I've met with the president and the provost and we just want to tell you that because we don't have an alcohol or drug abuse problem on our campus, this is not something that we need.'
"Then he said, 'Look, we're competing for the same students that other schools are competing for. There is a concern that if we have a program like this that somebody would interpret that as us having a significant drug and alcohol abuse problem on the campus.'"
KSU's Papp had a different response.
"When Judge Duffey first approached me about the program, I immediately thought it was an excellent idea that was greatly needed on virtually every campus in the United States," Papp said. "After discussing the concept with my cabinet, Kennesaw State signed on board."
Papp said he is not surprised by the success of the program, "It is helping students overcome addictions exactly as we hoped it would. Students from other universities who have heard about the program have transferred to KSU so they could participate."
The William S. & Betsy B. Duffey Collegiate Recovery Endowed Scholarship was established in 2007 for students in the KSU recovery program. One of the center's two endowed scholarships, it pays tuition for students in the program. There are 10 students on scholarship this year, Johnston said.
The Duffeys have had a family member in treatment and recovery, so the success stories at KSU are personally rewarding. "We are both passionate about the results," Duffey said.
Duffey, Papp and Johnston believe that scientific research into young-adult addiction is a next big step for the KSU center.
"Last year we hosted a national conference and brought in speakers from all over the country," Duffey said. "It became really clear that there is nobody really studying young-adult addiction.
Although there is a fair amount of research on general addiction, Duffey said, "Anybody treating young adults will say it is a very different population. If you tell a Delta pilot, 'If you continue your addiction you'll lose your job and it will affect your family,' they are highly motivated to be treated and they are highly successful at it.
"You tell a kid that if they don't get this fixed they won't be able to finish college and they'll be doing drugs all their life they say, 'Well, what's wrong with that picture?'"
Duffey said he'd like universities across the nation to work together to develop a body of information – scientific information – to understand young adult addiction. "It's only when you do that that you can begin to look at treatment programs that might be better and improved for young adults," he said.
Papp is more pragmatic. "Creating a research component for studying the causes and cures of young-adult addiction is a logical next step," he said, "but as with most research efforts, significant quantities of funding are required. We are undertaking efforts to find such funding."
Johnston, who is also an adjunct professor in the KSU psychology department, sees the center "collaborating with the academics to provide addiction and recovery research, education and curriculum development."
KSU is now the third largest university in the state with about 25,000 students. "The recovery community is pretty close knit," Duffey said. "The principal purpose of the program is designed to create community. This peer-to-peer support system provides what I think a lot of what kids need – the experience to understand that you can be in recovery and really, really enjoy your life."
Program participants, he said, become close friends and center most of their socializing in this community. "As they do that, they begin to get the confidence to say, 'You know, I can also do this with people who are outside the program."