Fast Times at Westwind junior high
It may have looked like a group project to some of the kids in eighth-grade science class. But the chemical compound one 13-year-old girl was pouring from her hand into the small bottle her friend was holding wasn't listed on the classroom's Table of Elements.
"What is it?" a Phoenix police officer later asked the girl.
"It's G," she said, referring to the small vial of a crystal substance she had pocketed in science class.
"What is G?"
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"I don't know what it is. I barely started doing it," she said, adding that the first time she tried methamphetamine -- sniffing it up her nose through a straw -- was four days ago.
The cop asked her how it made her feel.
"Good," said the girl, slightly chubby for her short height. "I twitch and stutter."
Then he asked her how much she paid for it.
"I just put a dollar in when they got it," she said. Apparently, several of the eighth-grade students at Westwind Intermediate near the west 101 Loop and Camelback Road had chipped in their lunch money to buy a Ziploc baggie of meth from a 13-year-old boy who was known to deal packages of the drug from the side pockets of his backpack.
When school employees wrapped up their search of the backpacks and the police finished questioning the students at Westwind on that Tuesday in February of 2004, three kids were arrested -- one for dealing and two for possession.
But subsequent conversations with students, held in confidence with Westwind assistant principal Amy Perhamus, revealed a much larger group of users.
"That year, we ended up with a list of 45 students in the eighth grade at Westwind who were using meth," she says.
If Perhamus' numbers are solid, what she discovered was the largest drug ring ever exposed at a Valley junior high, police say.
And that's a potentially dangerous discovery, given the location.
"Maryvale is typically the place where new drug trends will start in the city," says Phoenix Police Sergeant Tony Boynton.
The incident at Westwind Intermediate suggests that drug education in the schools isn't working.
More convincing than one anecdote, though, is 10 years of research showing that the top program for drug education in Arizona schools, DARE, has no effect on student drug use.
So new programs are being developed.
In response to the meth busts at Westwind, Pendergast School District superintendent Ron Richards conferred with Amy Perhamus to develop a way to continue providing an education to the students deemed to have a drug problem, rather than expelling them. "We have no throwaway kids," he says.
Together, they decided to create a separate two-room schoolhouse and a separate curriculum for any student in the district who admits he or she needs help kicking drugs.
The methamphetamine ring at Westwind appears to be unique among Valley schools, police say.
And critics of Perhamus say she has garnished that initial bust with hyperbole, including the number of kids found to have used meth at her school. Indeed, two people closely involved with the investigation in early 2004 put the number closer to eight.
Is Perhamus a visionary or an alarmist?
What most experts in the field suggest is that Perhamus is at least on the right track toward quality drug education for young people. She probably has overshot the mark by establishing a separate school, something experts say can just as easily ostracize kids and promote drug cliques as much as help them steer clear of drugs.
But most schools undershoot the mark, experts say, by providing drug education that involves little more than police officers telling them horror stories about drug use.
What most often is agreed on is this:
Children need to be provided access to an ongoing, honest conversation about drugs with a competent role model throughout their school years. And beyond conversations, young people need to be given the skills to help them combat the allure of drugs in the real world.
"You don't help if you don't give them the right tools," says Jean Ajamie, director of school safety and prevention in the Arizona Department of Education. "And you don't help if you stop talking to them in the sixth grade."
With guidance on research-based drug-education programming from the state Department of Education, this is the direction most Arizona schools are heading with drug education.
But, as usual in Arizona's education matters, this new mandate is grossly underfunded and applied sporadically.
"They all have a secret. They all struggle with the good and bad inside of them. They all struggle with the things that they've lived through. We believe very strongly that there is no such thing as a bad child. Unfortunately, a lot of them make very bad decisions. And unfortunately, a lot of them lead very bad lives."
DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, has been a rite of passage for parents and their elementary-school-age children in Arizona since the 1980s.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
"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."
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."
Still, the Pendergast program's supporters argue that the early stages of meth addiction are only evident to a very keen eye, and that most teachers or school resource officers don't spend a lot of time looking for it.
"It's not something a lot of school officials see," Richards says. "It takes a concerted effort to be attentive enough to identify kids on meth. Because sometimes, when they're first starting on it, they're the best, most attentive kids in class."
Newberg, a well-liked teacher with a hip Serj Tankian beard and a high radar for cues that he says should tell any teacher when a kid is on meth -- "Do they have facial tics? Lick their lips a lot? Are they always scratching at 'crank bugs'?" -- says most schools simply choose not to look too hard at the problem.
Newberg even smells a cover-up.
Newberg says he's visited other schools and is amazed how many red flags go unnoticed by those in charge.
"These kids have blatant gang-related stuff on their folders. Blatant gang-related stuff on their shirts and hats. And they walk to class like this. Because the teachers and principals don't want to make the connection. They'll say, 'We don't have a drug problem. We don't have a gang problem.' I wanna just tell them, 'That shirt right there? That kid's claiming hard-core. And he's walking right by your security officers, he's walking right by you. You just don't know it.'"
Newberg admits the problem in the Maryvale area is a bit more evident, but he feels that's only made him and Perhamus more attuned to an epidemic he's certain will eventually spread to every elementary school in town.
"We're really tuned in to it," he says. "We do watch the trends, we do pay attention to the articles. We listen to what the kids say and how they tell us about what's going on. And I think that a lot of people don't. They don't recognize it.
"But any time you ignore something, you're just an ostrich. And if you're gonna hide your head and say, 'Oh, that's not us,' or 'It's not that bad,' you're just promoting the problem. You're helping it continue. And you're still gonna get eaten by that lion, whether or not you hide your head in the sand."
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