Documentary on Northshore Recovery School wins RFK Journalism Award

Photo by Michael RotirotiSteve Liss of Beverly, director and executive producer of "16 & Recovering," which won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. It's the second RFK Award that Liss has received.

BEVERLY — The MTV documentary that chronicled a year in the life of Northshore Recovery High School students and their struggles with addiction has won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

The four-part series, "16 and Recovering," was directed and executive produced by Beverly filmmaker Steve Liss with help from Endicott College students.

Liss, who also won an RFK award in 2007 for his photographs of children in juvenile detention in Texas, called "16 and Recovering" "the single most difficult thing I've ever done."

"This is the bravest, kindest group of young people that I've ever encountered and this award is a testament to the strength and courage of the students at Northshore Recovery High," Liss said.

The RFK Journalism Awards were founded by the reporters who covered Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign to honor reporting on issues such as human rights and social justice. Past winners include the Washington Post, NPR, 60 Minutes and ProPublica.

This year's awards were presented on June 3 in a virtual ceremony hosted by RFK Human Rights president Kerry Kennedy and historian Michael Beschloss. The award for "16 and Recovering" was for the domestic television category and was presented by broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien. 

Liss, a former photographer for Time Magazine and a native of Quincy, said he heard about Northshore Recovery High School after moving to Beverly. The school opened in 2006 and serves students who have a diagnosed substance abuse disorder.

"It didn't take me very long to decide that's something we ought to do," Liss said.

Liss met with Northshore Recovery principal Michelle Lipinski, who liked the idea and got approval from the school's board of directors, which is made up of 20 superintendents from Cape Ann and North Shore public school districts that send students to the school.

Liss, who was the cinematographer, said he and Hayden Hinch, a sound recorder who lives in Salem, spent five days a week at the school for most of the 2017-2018 school year. They agreed not to depict any drug use or drug purchases. If a student didn't want something filmed, Liss said he shut off the camera.

One of the four episodes included the devastating news that one of the students, Shawn O'Neill, had died.

Liss said he was aided on the documentary by 11 students from Endicott College, where he was an associate professor of media at the time. The students, in their spare time, filled such roles as camera operator, assistant editor and sound recorder.

"I cannot say enough about the Endicott students," Liss said. "Every single time when I asked them to come through they came through, under situations that would challenge the most seasoned professional."

Lipinski said she has received positive messages from people around the world who have seen the documentary in their native language. Some have donated to the school, including a $3 donation from Ecuador.

"I think it really resonated with a lot of people," she said.

Lipinski said she hopes the documentary will serve as a "jumping off point" for other schools in how to treat students with addiction "with compassion, empathy and love" rather than punishment.

"I want people to understand that recovery is a process, not a destination," she said. "I think people forget that it's really complex and convoluted. You need to show the messiness of the recovery process but also show the hope and the beauty of it as well."

Lipinski praised Liss for his handling of the documentary, saying he created an environment at the school where he was "trusted, valued and considered one of our own."

"I would be hard-pressed to find another person who could have told the beauty and tragedy of our students' stories in such a respectful and balanced way," Lipinski said. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535,  pleighton@gloucestertimes.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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