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

An estimated 80 percent of Arizona junior high and high school students have gone through the DARE programming.

The program was created in 1983 by then-Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates, who, around that time, also stated that the "casual user ought to be taken out and shot, because he or she has no reason for using drugs."

DARE swept across the country within the parameters of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. The program usually consists of a 17-week series of lectures given to fifth- and sixth-grade students by police officers, who spend the time emphasizing the dangers of drug use.

Despite the sign, Westwind assistant principal Amy Perhamus says meth pipes are sometimes found on the playground shared by Calderwood and Copper King.
Jimmy Magahern
Despite the sign, Westwind assistant principal Amy Perhamus says meth pipes are sometimes found on the playground shared by Calderwood and Copper King.

For years, though, students and educators have complained that the officers often exaggerate the effects of recreational drug use and tend to group all drugs together in one pool of deadly and addictive substances.

The problem, research shows: If a young person tries a drug and doesn't experience the effects described by the DARE officer, the officer is likely to lose all credibility with the student.

Kids pretty quickly realize you don't turn into Charlie Parker after smoking one joint.

The two most critical flaws with DARE, though, seem to be the length of the program and the things that aren't taught.

What research shows, Jean Ajamie of the Department of Education says, is that students need to be discussing drugs long after their sixth-grade graduation from DARE.

And DARE doesn't teach kids how to handle peer pressure, or stress, or "any of the other situations that we know lead to drug use," she says.

"You can't just stop talking to young people about this," she says, "and you can't just sit there and lecture them that this stuff is bad. That just doesn't work."

Indeed.

It's amazing the program, which Lemoyne College economist Edward Shepard, who has released several national studies on DARE's finances, estimates costs about $200 per student per year, held out for so long in so many schools.

"Well, it just seems like such a good idea," Ajamie says. "And it's full of great people. But you've got to look at the numbers."

Several young people from Pendergast-area schools give their drug education classes a mixed review. The general consensus among the students, who were interviewed as they walked to their homes near Camelback Road and the 101 freeway after school, is strikingly similar to what research says:

DARE is okay, it helped a little, but it probably didn't help those most at risk, and it did little to build the skills a young person needs to avoid the lure of drugs.

"You get the 'Just Say No,' and that's fine, but they don't teach tactics for keeping away from stuff," says Natalee Barnes, 14, a freshman at nearby Copper Canyon High School. "I learned that stuff from my parents. But I don't know that everyone learns that from their parents."

At Copper Canyon, students can take a class on "making the right choices in life," she says, but it's an elective. And to be honest, with so little room for electives in the Arizona school day, she uses her choices for subjects she really loves. Same with most of her classmates.

Herman Zepeta, a former Westwind Intermediate student now at Copper Canyon, says he doesn't even remember DARE.

"They must have been that boring," he says.

But Alex Madera, also a Copper Canyon freshman who attended Westwind, does remember his DARE classes. And it's one of the most criticized parts of the program -- the showing of grisly accident photos of teens who drove under the influence -- that most imprinted on Madera's mind the dangerous of the drugs.

"You know, if they just kept showing us the photos every year, I think that would be the best thing you could do," he says. "They were gross. But I can still see them in my head today. It was serious stuff."

For Fabien Espinoza, 16, another former Westwind grad, it was a much more personal experience that he says keeps him away from drugs.

His mother's boyfriend, "who was just like a dad," got hooked on meth. Then the boyfriend started dealing, then his life went to hell, now he's "on the run somewhere," Espinoza says.

"You hear the stuff in DARE, and my mom is always saying, 'Stay away from that junk,' and that's all fine," he says. "But what hits me is what happened to his life. I hate it because I've seen it up close.

"I guess if everybody could just see it up close, maybe that would stop them. Because it's just plain ugly what happens to you."

In September of this year, Phoenix police, following their peers in Scottsdale and Mesa, ditched the DARE program. The department will use the $500,000 to strengthen its vice squad.

That leaves about 50 law enforcement agencies still teaching the classes, according to the Arizona DARE Officers Association.

In its place, Ajamie says, is a new wave of programs that stress "skill-building" throughout more of the student's school career.

Also, the DARE program itself is being revamped to better reflect what research is showing to be effective.

Neither the new DARE nor the new wave of drug education comes anywhere close to the intensity of the program being piloted by Amy Perhamus in the Pendergast School District.

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2 comments
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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