St. Paul middle-schoolers may have thought meth was candy

  • Article by: James Walsh and Pat Pheifer
  • Star Tribune
  • October 3, 2007 - 10:06 PM

The good news embedded in the bad news might be that the teenagers who used methamphetamine at a St. Paul middle school on Tuesday -- and ended up in hospitals -- didn't use it the way most addicts do.

The kids, all about 14 years old, ate the drug. Most people seeking the quickest high smoke, inject or snort meth, rather than swallowing it.

Experts say that might mean these kids aren't experienced. And it lends fuel to the rumor going around Hazel Park Middle School Academy on Wednesday that at least some of the kids didn't know what they were eating.

A 14-year-old girl pleaded guilty Wednesday in Ramsey County juvenile court to giving the meth to six classmates.

She will remain in custody at least until her next hearing on Oct. 10.

All seven of the students have been suspended from school, pending further investigation, Hazel Park Principal Coleman McDonough said. Some, if not all of them, face additional school discipline.

But two Hazel Park parents said Wednesday that the girl who brought the meth to school may have told at least some of the other kids that it was candy.

"It was such a large group of kids who tried it," said Becky Grace, whose son is an eighth-grader at the school. "That could explain it."

Added Nancy Schiller, whose daughter is also in the eighth grade: "Some students who saw it said it looked like, what do you call it, Pixy Stix?"

When asked Wednesday if all the students who ingested the drug knew they were eating crystal meth, McDonough, the principal, said: "That's still unclear. I don't know the answer to that."

Later, McDonough acknowledged that he, too, has heard the candy rumors from kids -- but not from the kids involved.

Ignorance possible

Professionals who work with young people struggling with substance abuse say the idea that these teenagers might not have been meth-savvy has merit. Methamphetamine use among kids this age lags far behind alcohol and marijuana use -- and has remained relatively flat in Minnesota and elsewhere.

"It almost begs the question how inexperienced these kids might have been in their usage that they chose to administer it orally," said Jim Steinhagen, executive director of Hazelden Youth Services and the Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth. "It makes you wonder, did they know the other possibilities?"

Chuck Noerenberg, meth policy coordinator for the state's Department of Health, said meth's shiny crystals could pass for something less sinister.

"I think that's indicative that the kids really didn't understand what they were doing," he said of those who ate the drug. "It wouldn't shock me if some of the kids thought it was some kind of exotic candy."

A talking point for parents

Regardless of the lower rates of use, professionals urge parents to take the opportunity to talk to their kids about the dangers of meth -- and other illegal drugs. Because of meth's relatively low cost and high availability, it's also likely that someone your child knows has been exposed to the drug, said Katie Lubbers, an addiction counselor at Hazelden's Center for Youth and Families. Because meth is a stimulant, some girls may use it to suppress their appetite and lose weight.

"This is an opportunity to talk to your kids about drugs," she said.

Girl admits guilt

The student who gave out the meth appears to know what she was doing. She pleaded guilty in juvenile court to second-degree sale of a controlled substance. While she was arrested for giving it away, the crime still is considered a "sale," a Ramsey County spokeswoman said.

St. Paul police searched the girl's home Tuesday and found additional crystal meth -- about 2 grams, said police spokesman Tom Walsh. That's considered a "small amount," Walsh said, most often for personal use. "When you're talking about somebody who sells, you're going to have a lot more than 2 grams," he said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, police had made no more arrests in the case. But, when asked if more arrests are pending, Walsh said, "I would hope."

The girl faces an uncertain future, according to prosecutors. Ordinarily, passing out such a small amount of drugs would be a third-degree crime, said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. But passing out drugs at school ratchets up the offense.

Still, juvenile courts have a lot of flexibility in handing down a sentence. There are no sentencing guidelines, said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Much will ride on the girl's background -- has she been in trouble before, has she been truant, does she hang out with the wrong kids? The fact that the girl apparently brought the drugs from home could mean trouble for her family as well, Freeman said. And it could mean that child protection workers become involved.

"Whoever is at the home, the mother or the father or both, not only could they be charged for the drugs, but maybe with endangering a minor," he said. • 651-298-1551 • 651-298-1541

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