Fast Times at Westwind junior high

Any way you add it up, kids at one Valley middle school were dealing meth out of their backpacks

It may have looked like a group project to some of the kids in eighth-grade science class. But the chemical compound one 13-year-old girl was pouring from her hand into the small bottle her friend was holding wasn't listed on the classroom's Table of Elements.

"What is it?" a Phoenix police officer later asked the girl.

"It's G," she said, referring to the small vial of a crystal substance she had pocketed in science class.

Middle-schoolers have enough on their plate without drug addiction and its associated problems.
Middle-schoolers have enough on their plate without drug addiction and its associated problems.
The Calderwood school staff includes (from left) teachers Mike Larson and Peter Newberg, office support staff Gina Holt and Jeri Ward, and administrator Amy Perhamus.
courtesy of Pendergast School District
The Calderwood school staff includes (from left) teachers Mike Larson and Peter Newberg, office support staff Gina Holt and Jeri Ward, and administrator Amy Perhamus.

"What is G?"

"I don't know what it is. I barely started doing it," she said, adding that the first time she tried methamphetamine -- sniffing it up her nose through a straw -- was four days ago.

The cop asked her how it made her feel.

"Good," said the girl, slightly chubby for her short height. "I twitch and stutter."

Then he asked her how much she paid for it.

"I just put a dollar in when they got it," she said. Apparently, several of the eighth-grade students at Westwind Intermediate near the west 101 Loop and Camelback Road had chipped in their lunch money to buy a Ziploc baggie of meth from a 13-year-old boy who was known to deal packages of the drug from the side pockets of his backpack.

When school employees wrapped up their search of the backpacks and the police finished questioning the students at Westwind on that Tuesday in February of 2004, three kids were arrested -- one for dealing and two for possession.

But subsequent conversations with students, held in confidence with Westwind assistant principal Amy Perhamus, revealed a much larger group of users.

"That year, we ended up with a list of 45 students in the eighth grade at Westwind who were using meth," she says.

If Perhamus' numbers are solid, what she discovered was the largest drug ring ever exposed at a Valley junior high, police say.

And that's a potentially dangerous discovery, given the location.

"Maryvale is typically the place where new drug trends will start in the city," says Phoenix Police Sergeant Tony Boynton.

The incident at Westwind Intermediate suggests that drug education in the schools isn't working.

More convincing than one anecdote, though, is 10 years of research showing that the top program for drug education in Arizona schools, DARE, has no effect on student drug use.

So new programs are being developed.

In response to the meth busts at Westwind, Pendergast School District superintendent Ron Richards conferred with Amy Perhamus to develop a way to continue providing an education to the students deemed to have a drug problem, rather than expelling them. "We have no throwaway kids," he says.

Together, they decided to create a separate two-room schoolhouse and a separate curriculum for any student in the district who admits he or she needs help kicking drugs.

The methamphetamine ring at Westwind appears to be unique among Valley schools, police say.

And critics of Perhamus say she has garnished that initial bust with hyperbole, including the number of kids found to have used meth at her school. Indeed, two people closely involved with the investigation in early 2004 put the number closer to eight.

Is Perhamus a visionary or an alarmist?

What most experts in the field suggest is that Perhamus is at least on the right track toward quality drug education for young people. She probably has overshot the mark by establishing a separate school, something experts say can just as easily ostracize kids and promote drug cliques as much as help them steer clear of drugs.

But most schools undershoot the mark, experts say, by providing drug education that involves little more than police officers telling them horror stories about drug use.

What most often is agreed on is this:

Children need to be provided access to an ongoing, honest conversation about drugs with a competent role model throughout their school years. And beyond conversations, young people need to be given the skills to help them combat the allure of drugs in the real world.

"You don't help if you don't give them the right tools," says Jean Ajamie, director of school safety and prevention in the Arizona Department of Education. "And you don't help if you stop talking to them in the sixth grade."

With guidance on research-based drug-education programming from the state Department of Education, this is the direction most Arizona schools are heading with drug education.

But, as usual in Arizona's education matters, this new mandate is grossly underfunded and applied sporadically.

"We need to create a multilevel approach to helping these kids," says Perhamus. "It is not simply a matter of will power, especially when you're dealing with 12- to 14-year-old kids.

"They all have a secret. They all struggle with the good and bad inside of them. They all struggle with the things that they've lived through. We believe very strongly that there is no such thing as a bad child. Unfortunately, a lot of them make very bad decisions. And unfortunately, a lot of them lead very bad lives."

DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, has been a rite of passage for parents and their elementary-school-age children in Arizona since the 1980s.

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Katie O.
Katie O.

I lived in that area for 18 years, before I moved away to college. I can tell you that 10 years ago, there were serious drug and gang related problems. It wasn't "just a little pot." It was a very scary place to grow up. I'm so glad to hear that someone who is in a position to do something is beginning to address the issue.

I have my own theories for why no one else seems to have identified the problem. VERY FEW of these drug addicts are going to tell a teacher or school counselor straight up that they are using these drugs. They aren't even going to hint at it. In fact, this student would avoid the school counselor at all costs for fear that they would get "caught." They hide it as much as they can. So the well-meaning cop posed as school counselor would never realize how bad the problem was.

The only way to get at an accurate figure is to talk to the students. When I went to Westwind, everyone knew who the gang-bangers were. Everyone. There was no question. But the teachers had absolutely no clue. The kid who punched the lunch lady? No, he was not in a gang. He was trying to gain acceptance by the gang, whose members are not nearly so stupid as to so openly declare themselves in such a manner.

karen moreno quintana
karen moreno quintana

hi my name is karen morneo, and i went to westwind during this insident happened. i was in the fifth or sixth grade. and i was using drugs at the time but thanks to amy perhamusus program. i no longer use no more so i love you ms perhamus and mr. Newberg

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