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


Just two weeks ago, a young special-ed student found a meth pipe on the playground outside Calderwood Elementary, the newest of the Pendergast District's schools.

Par for the course, Perhamus says.

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.

"It was in a nice little black zipper pouch," Perhamus says. "From the night before, somebody had dropped their meth pipe on the playground. Yesterday alone, I had three meth pipes that I had to turn in to Phoenix PD."

To hear Perhamus tell it, the West Valley's elementary and middle school teachers and administrators are sweeping up meth around the campuses like so much spilled milk on the cafeteria floor. And it's not just methamphetamine residue and paraphernalia they're finding.

"Lately, we've seen a resurgence of cocaine," she says, affecting a pained, well-isn't-that-special smile. "Not crack, but true cocaine. It's having a pretty strong hold on our kids right now."

Like many of the newer residential areas expanding the Valley's urban sprawl, the neighborhoods surrounding the Pendergast District's schools are lined with nice, attractive, middle-class homes with neatly trimmed yards, whose affordability masks the sometimes desperate lives of the young families living inside them. The way that kids in one of the least affluent parts of the Valley get cocaine, one of the most expensive highs out there, is often courtesy of a well-connected relative or older friend, Perhamus says.

"A lot of these kids begin their addiction because they have a cousin or an uncle or a big brother or a parent who think it's funny to get them high when they're 5 years old," she says. Same with meth. "Any meth addict will tell you they will spend their entire life trying to achieve the high that they got that first time on meth."

The district's meth issues all started out, apparently, with a frighteningly inappropriate party favor at an eighth-grader's birthday party.

"The way that the epidemic -- as we call it -- began was that there was a girl who was having a birthday," says Perhamus. "And her big sister, who was a meth user, thought that it would be a very nice gift to hand out the meth, for free, to her little sister and all of her friends at the birthday party."

Perhamus began hearing about the girls toting the crank to class from the school's secretive network of "good snitches" -- students encouraged to tell on their classmates only when they're observed doing something that clearly endangers others, or themselves.

She already knew that the school community, which encompasses a square mile bordered by 87th Avenue and Indian School Road known for its high level of gang activity, had a problem with meth.

But nobody in the school knew how widespread meth use was until Perhamus sent out the word to her good snitches to come back with a list of classmates they had observed at one time or another using the drug.

Students who felt they had a drug problem themselves were encouraged to come forward and, providing they didn't have any meth in their system or in their possession, there'd be no questions asked.

A few students took Perhamus up on the offer, admitting that together they had hidden a vial of meth on campus, but that now it had been stolen.

Immediately, the panicked staff began an all-out search of the campus. "Well, kids aren't stupid," Perhamus says. "They know when something's up. So as soon as word of the search got out, we found meth in desks, we found meth on the floor." She then pauses, placing emphasis on each of her next three words:

"We . . . found . . . meth."

They also found the dealer -- a boy who later told police he had gotten it from a neighborhood gang member and "didn't want to smoke it, so I started selling it and I was making a lot of money" -- and two other kids with enough of the drug on them to warrant an arrest. One was the girl in science class, who initially said she was holding it for a friend who had been called into the principal's office because of a dress-code violation.

The dealer was expelled; the other two were put into in-school suspension -- separated from the rest of the student body, but still allowed to stay in school.

Perhamus eventually convinced Pendergast District superintendent Ron Richards that drugs were enough of a problem in the district that separate classrooms, with a separate curriculum, were needed to handle all the other drug abusers she suspected were in the schools.

Today, Perhamus is the administrator of this new school, Calderwood Elementary, which, right now, is little more than two modular buildings sitting on the grounds of Copper King Elementary at 107th Avenue and Campbell.

Two former Westwind teachers, Peter Newberg and Mike Larson, accepted the challenge of teaching the new classes.

Already, the program's been hailed by Ajamie of the Arizona Department of Education, who cheers Pendergast administrators for finding a way to keep the offenders in school, rather than simply expelling them.

White House "Drug Czar" John Walters, who met with Perhamus and Richards last summer during a 25-city fact-finding tour, gave the program a thumbs-up.

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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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