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 was a gigantic coup to get somebody of Walters' stature out to speak at such a small and untested school drug-education program.

Perhamus followed up Walters' visit with a press release.

"The growing use of methamphetamines in the west Valley of Phoenix, particularly spreading down to use by children in elementary schools, was of interest to Mr. Walters," Perhamus wrote in her press statement.

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.

The only trouble is, apart from Perhamus' statements, it's hard to find evidence that meth use is really becoming at all rampant at the elementary and middle school levels.

Other school administrators that Richards has spoken with claim they haven't seen anything like what Perhamus describes. Cops who've pulled stints as school resource officers maintain the meth problem at that level is more like kids popping too much Sudafed.

Indeed, police officers interviewed by New Times from throughout the Valley say they've seen nothing like what Perhamus describes.

Commenting anonymously, one west Phoenix law enforcement officer suggests that Perhamus tends toward alarmist comments, relying on the words of tattletaling preteens to overinflate the severity of the problem and launch herself into a specially created position.

Even Westwind's principal, Claudio Coria, while praising Perhamus for her work, says the school's search turned up only nine suspected meth users -- still plenty shocking for middle school, but nowhere near Perhamus' original list of 45.

Two police officers with knowledge of the sweep at the school put the number at eight.

"And even then," Coria says, "there were only three in the original group we caught, and then over time, we had other kids say, 'Ah, I think I tried it' -- at home, or at school, or in the park -- wherever."

Three students at nearby Copper Canyon High School, Alex Madera, Phyro Sears and Herman Zepeta, were all students at Westwind Intermediate in 2004, at the time of the meth ring bust. They say they never heard of any kids using methamphetamine at the school of 801 students, especially not 45 kids, but they did know of a few kids smoking pot.

Still, they agreed that those kids needed something more intensive than DARE. Those pot smokers, they say, were the same kids who laughed the most during the DARE classes the years before.

"It's kind of like you could already tell the ones that would be getting into the stuff because of how they acted back then [during DARE]," Madera says. "It's like it only works on the people who wouldn't do drugs anyway."

Nevertheless, superintendent Richards stands by Perhamus' assessment. Like Coria, Richards thinks the 45 count is a little high, and admits that, at present, only 15 kids have been signed up to go through the Calderwood school, even though the program is open to the entire district.

Still, he believes Perhamus when she says the problem is bigger than anyone realizes.

"Well, you've talked to Amy," he says, by way of explanation. "I'm sure you can hear the passion in her voice. And that's what you need -- somebody who has that level of care, and that level of passion for working with children."

Newberg, who taught for 10 years at Westwind before coming aboard at Calderwood, is even more emphatic.

"I would trust anything that Amy says," he maintains, when asked if he thinks her count of 45 is in the right ballpark. "I think Amy is the most in-tune person in the entire school district. And if she gives you a statistic, then I would trust her statistic over anyone else's. Without question."

At Calderwood, students identified as having drug problems are offered what Richards calls "a mall of opportunity" to help them find their best treatment. Calderwood also brings in counselors from ValueOptions and the New Foundation residential treatment center on a weekly basis.

"It hasn't been easy to get our behavioral-health unit into schools," says ValueOptions' Arjelia Gomez. "If anything, it's offered as an after-school program. But there, it's a part of the regular class day."

Peter Newberg says teaching kids with meth problems can mimic the ups and downs of any teacher's day -- only with much more "spiky" ups and downs.

"You never know what feelings a kid's gonna bring with them to school," he says. "They can come into class in a great mood, and then you may be talking about amoebas, and that will strike a chord somehow. They'll come out with a big incident that they want to talk about, that may even reveal a CPS issue that you need to call on. There's just so many more extremes."

Some of the kids in Calderwood are beyond the stage where they only need counseling. A few require treatment -- and that's where, Perhamus says, they fall into a gap where neither the schools nor the courts can give them the help they need.

"Most of the kids who come to us really want help," she says. "The problem is that we have kids who feel the only way to get treatment is to get locked up. So they will go on a crime spree, not to feed their drug habit -- 'cause they can all get drugs for free -- but to get caught, so that they can get help."

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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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