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Date of Issue: March 11, 2009

5 AME students ousted for illegal drug deals

Anna Maria Elementary principal Tom Levengood, school counselor Cindi Harrison, Holmes Beach Police Lt. Dale Stephenson and Officer Brian Copeman face concerned parents at a meeting called by Levengood to halt rumors about drugs at school. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

There were tears and concerns, shocks and gasps, and rumors put to rest at a Friday night meeting called by Anna Maria Elementary School principal Tom Levengood of fifth-grade students’ parents.

Levengood said five students were issued a 10-day suspension, and will not be allowed to return to AME. But no names of students suspended Thursday were revealed and won’t be, he added.

The meeting was open to all parents who wanted to learn the truth about a recent incident involving drugs that resulted in the suspension of five students from AME.

Levengood said he wanted to put aside the many rumors that have circulated about drug use at the school since last month’s Parent-Teacher Organization family dinner night.

“So and so said this. So and so said that. So and so has marijuana. So and so smokes marijuana. Each rumor was investigated. And each proved not to be of any substance,” Levengood said.

Until he received a report from an after-school care employee at the Anna Maria Island Community Center that “some kids were involved in marijuana.

“We found substance to it. Children started telling us ‘It’s happening.’”

After school on March 4, one student told his mother and another reported to counselor Cindi Harrison that there was marijuana at school, according to Levengood.

Levengood said they learned of two transactions: “One student attempted to sell, two students bought marijuana. One student got scared and flushed it.”

The parent received the evidence in the second case, which later proved to be tobacco and grass, according to Levengood.

“Other students were involved in the negotiations, price negotiations, and another student was asked to get the money,” he said.

Levengood said that any involvement with a drug transaction results in the same consequence.

“Some of these students have never been involved in anything bad at this school in their life,” Levengood emphasized.

“We found out many things,” he told the parents attending the meeting in the auditorium, as he sat in front of a rapt audience with Harrison and Holmes Beach Police Lt. Dale Stephenson and HBPD Officer Brian Copeman, who serves as the school’s resource officer.

“There is more going on with children of this age than we ever imagined,” Levengood said.

Children are consuming alcohol, he said, and he also explained a situation that resulted in referrals for some students over a “kissing incident.”

Around the same time rumors of drug use began, Levengood said he dealt with a stolen computer and Palm Pilot, and that issue was resolved.

But he also cautioned — urged — parents to monitor their student’s text messaging on cell phones. “These kids are texting language that you would not believe.”

The parents learned from Levengood that AME students have been smoking marijuana at the skate park and on the beach, and “sneaking away” from events such as the music festivals on Pine Avenue and movie night at the Center to smoke marijuana.

Parents learned about a “hot box” at the skate park — a Dumpster — from which the kids removed trash bags, climbed inside and with the lid closed, one child smoked marijuana in a soda can converted to a pipe and the others breathed in the smoke to get high.

“They need to stop being so darned sneaky,” Levengood said, and come to school to be educated. We’ve learned now that some of the students here are more interested in autonomy — from their parents, authority, school. They want to be on their own, riding the trolley and doing what they please.”

Levengood said he’d been 33 years in grade schools and tough schools, and “this is the greatest place I’ve ever been.

“I love it here,” he said while complimenting the dedication of the teachers and staff. “But this can happen to anyone’s kid, and we all need to understand that.

“Before last Thursday,” Levengood said, “I did not think or even dream that we had a child at this school who would promote the sale or use of drugs.

“Did this hit us between the eyes?

“You bet.”

Levengood explained the suspension and expulsion process for the involved students, and instructed the audience on the school district criteria in the student conduct handbook.

“It’s out of my hands,” he said. The decision from here is up to the district. If the students are expelled, he explained, they may be assigned to the district alternative school — not another elementary school, such as Palma Sola Elementary — and they will be prohibited from attending school functions on any school district property.

The alternative school is Horizon, and there is presently only one elementary-aged child enrolled there.

The district will quickly hold a pre-expulsion hearing for each student at which district personnel will consider input from Levengood and the student’s parents, attendance, grades and any referral history.

Other choices after expulsion include home schooling, virtual school, charter school or private school. At the end of the expulsion period, the student is re-evaluated before being admitted back into the public school system.

Stephenson said that the police department has been informed of the situation, but would not elaborate on if there would be any criminal charges.

There was some discussion about getting the fifth-graders into the school’s drug education program sooner, possibly earlier in the school year in the future.

And some parents left the meeting convinced that the DARE program would see positive results among the remaining 46 fifth-graders this spring.


Moving forward

Principal Tom Levengood and AME counselor Cindi Harrison spoke to both fifth-grade classes in assembly following the suspension of five classmates.

All 46 fifth-graders in attendance stood in response to Levengood’s question: How many of you knew that drugs were used or sold at school?

“This involved good kids who have wonderful parents, not just kids consistently in trouble,” said principal Tom Levengood. “It could happen to anyone and we knew students were concerned.

“These are their good friends. It’s hard no matter how you look at it. Even if you didn’t get along, it’s still like loosing a member of the family.”

The discussion with students was presented as a learning opportunity, one that fifth-grade teacher DeAnn Davis summed up: “Smart people learn from their mistakes. Even smarter people learn from other’s mistakes.”

Levengood and Holmes Beach Police Officer Brian Copeman, the school’s resource officer, are contemplating advancing the fifth-grade drug awareness program, DARE, earlier in the school year with monthly follow-ups. The 10-week program is presently planned to start following FCAT.

Levengood said AME students are not in need of an additional drug education program — that Copeman is engaged with the students on campus — eating lunch with them, visiting them in their classrooms and at recess. He also voluntarily checks in with students who have had discipline issues at school, said Levengood.

“Officer Copeman has a better relationship with AME students than I have seen of any other resource officer — and I’ve worked with some good ones,” said Levengood. “He has made himself part of the solution and I see a strong relationship between him and students at all grade levels.”

Levengood said he’s been candid and open without compromising issues of confidentiality. And he is confident in AME’s ability to move forward together.

“We have top notch kids in fifth-grade,” he said. “What we need to do more of, is listening to them.”