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 parents of many of the kids we've tried to help get very angry with us," she says. "It's a very hard thing to sit down in a school office and be told your child is using a hard-core drug."

Making it harder yet, says Westwind's Coria, who recommends a transfer to Calderwood when a student shows definite signs of drug problems, often the parents of a meth-addicted student look like they're modeling the lifestyle.

"The parents will come in all tatted up, with a doo-rag and the flag hanging out, and you think, 'Okay, what do I do here?'" he says. "We have to tell them, 'Leave that stuff at home. There are home rules, and there are school rules. And we have to enforce them.' This is a community problem. It's not a school problem. We deal with the school piece, but as a community, we all have to be on the same page."

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.

Richards believes society is on a steep decline, and that the problems in his district are just a concentrated preview of where all schools are headed.

"It's getting worse," he says. "The availability of these drugs is increasing significantly. The social acceptance of inhalants, and these pill parties, and alcohol, is increasing. You see it on TV, and in the music kids are listening to. It's socially accepted.

"We need to give kids the skills to make that distinction between what is accepted social behavior and what is not," he says. "And that's a hard thing to do, especially when this negative stuff is all around you."

Before Ron Richards gave the green light to Amy Perhamus' alternative school, he first put in a call to all the other elementary and middle schools in the district to ask them how they were handling their meth problem.

To his surprise, most of the principals responded with the same befuddled words: "What meth problem?"

"Some will admit they've caught kids with marijuana," Richards says. "But the attitude is often, 'Well, at least it's not heroin,' you know?" When asked specifically about meth, Richards says most administrators describe their worst offenders as "kids robbing their parents' medicine chest, and taking pills 'til they get dizzy."

Richards, like Perhamus, believes that other principals and police officers aren't seeing a problem that exists right under their noses.

Those other principals and police officers, however, believe they are the ones seeing the problem clearly.

They say meth isn't showing up in the Valley's junior high and elementary schools. They say that adolescent use of drugs hasn't changed much in the past 40 years, since, yes, the 1960s.

They note that Perhamus and Richards are seeing things from the perspective of arguably the toughest neighborhood in the Valley.

But this opinion also is coming from police officers and educators who work in some of the Valley's other toughest neighborhoods.

Before the '60s, cops say, kids just experimented with booze, which, researchers point out early and often, is still by far the biggest chemical problem facing today's young people.

This issue of properly assessing the problem is no small matter.

Because as top drug researchers such as Dr. Barry Lester of Brown University point out, much of the Drug War's worst policies and programs were born of bad data and bad science.

"There's just so much bogus information out there about drugs," Lester tells New Times. "Sometimes people just let it go and say it's wrong for a good cause. What actually happens, though, is that good cause is badly damaged by bad data."

Some of that bad data is what so often compromised the mission of DARE.

New Times contacted 10 cops who've worked with school districts, and their overall assessment of the meth problem among young kids was roughly the same.

Even in Pendergast's own backyard.

"We're certainly not drug-free, but it's still comparatively low-key in the lower grades," says Sergeant Tony Boynton, supervisor of the school resource officers in the Maryvale Precinct, which encompasses Pendergast's area.

"Typically it's kids experimenting. We've had some kids trying to get high on cough syrup, get a pseudoephedrine high. It's that attempt to find a high somewhere. I'm not saying that's not bad. It's just that it has remained over the years at a comparatively low level."

Even in the tough streets of the central precinct, says Sergeant Ted Music, a police officer who has worked in central and south Phoenix for 33 years.

"In those 33 years, it's pretty much been the same thing in the junior highs," Music says. "You always see a little bit of marijuana. But as far as the harder drugs like meth? No. Those drugs are still something you begin seeing at the high school level."

Even Westwind's principal Coria is careful not to let the February 2004 incident color his school as one with a major meth problem.

"Here, that was the only incident we dealt with," he says. "We never dealt with anything like that before or after. I think it was just a group of kids who had tried it, brought it to school, and we nailed 'em for it. But we haven't had an incident like that since."

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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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