Longform

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?"

"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.

"We need to create a multilevel approach to helping these kids," says Perhamus. "It is not simply a matter of will power, especially when you're dealing with 12- to 14-year-old kids.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern
Robert Nelson