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

The trouble with that, Perhamus says, is that most first-time juveniles are only sentenced to a year's probation with a probation officer. If they violate probation, they're sent to Durango, a county jail for juveniles, where there's no substance-abuse treatment, and then released with a mandate that they receive treatment from a provider like ValueOptions -- which can have a long waiting period for an initial intake evaluation -- to be funded by private insurance.

"What happens is they fall into this black hole, where they can never hold on long enough to get treatment," she says. "Our student that we expelled -- highly intelligent, gifted student. Family history of mental illness.

"Every time he got released from Durango, his mother would set up an appointment with ValueOptions. But he could never hold on long enough to get to that initial intake. They would always schedule it 30 days out. By then, he was locked up again. So five times later, he still is untreated for his drug addiction, and today, he is what we would consider a hardened criminal."

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.

He's now at Adobe Mountain, one of the state's juvenile detention centers, Perhamus says, where he might finally get drug treatment -- but at a cost of what could have been a bright future.

"The absolute hardest part is when you have to look a kid in the face, and you know you can't help them, and CPS can't help them, and the police can't help them," she says, choking back tears.

"There are not many kids that I have to do that with," she adds. "I won't give up on any kid. But sometimes you just know they're gone, and you'll never get them back. That's when this job is really hard."


With her small size, soft voice and deceptively young appearance, Amy Perhamus hardly looks the part of a street-smart homie.

But as she details the exploits of the WSP (West Side Phoenix) 87th Avenue gangs, speaks fluent Spanish on the phone to a young kid calling in to tell her about a friend he worries may be doing meth, and decodes the latest graffiti tagged on the neighborhood walls ("That's actually where we get some of our information"), it's evident Perhamus has spent a lot of time getting to know her surroundings.

"The drug scene here is very ingrained with the gangs," she says. "And the most difficult part in this specific neighborhood is that nobody will ever snitch anyone out. Anybody who is even trying to help themselves [by seeking treatment] will never give up enough information to get rid of the source."

Perhamus is guardedly protective of her own snitches, but for entirely different reasons.

"If anything ever gets tied back to a kid telling me anything," she says firmly, speaking in slow, measured tones, "somebody will go kill one of my kids. And they'll do it for real. I've been to kids' funerals, and I don't ever want to go to another one."

She's not scared of the gang-bangers herself, she says. "I'm just scared for them."

That may account for why Perhamus ultimately did not put New Times in touch with any students to speak, even anonymously, about their experiences, despite numerous attempts to line up interviews. "Don't get your hopes up," Peter Newberg warned at one point. "These kids can be very private -- for good reason. They may have seen their uncle shoot someone the night before, and now they've got this secret that they have to hold onto for fear of their own lives."

As chilling as it sounds, Perhamus clearly loves working in this environment. Formerly a teacher at an upscale prep school in New York, Perhamus says she couldn't identify with all the "spoiled brats driving to school in their Beamers," and practically gave up on teaching.

After moving to Phoenix, she took a job in the Madison District, teaching kids on in-school suspension, and found herself enthralled by a particular student's stories about life as an Eastside Crip. When that position ended, she took a job teaching P.E. at the Harold W. Smith magnet school in Glendale -- a low-income school with, at the time, the second-lowest test grades in the state and a high gang rate.

"Before the principal hired any new teachers, he put us all on the school van and he would not let us sign our contract until he drove us around the neighborhood," Perhamus says. "And he gave it to us good. He drove us around the trailer park, where we watched babies walking around, naked, with no adult to be found. He made us watch a drug deal. And when we got back to the school, he said, 'If this is really what you want to get into, you can sign your contract.'"

Perhamus signed on immediately, and quickly learned what she says remains her key to getting the truth out of troubled kids: "If you respect them, the kids will all tell you their stories. And then you start to realize that there's a lot more to it."

She says that's what they try to get to at Calderwood: the problems really driving the kids to use drugs. Much of the time, bad family influences are at the root -- which can make it particularly hard to get the kids into the program, since the parents have to be involved, too.

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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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