Noe Valley Voice May 2000

Attempted Poisoning of Teacher Results in Arrest of Four Students

By Heidi Anderson

It isn't always easy to be 13 years old. And it's been especially hard to be 13 -- or 12 or 14 -- in Noe Valley lately.

For several months last year, a conflict between a Noe Valley merchant and students at James Lick Middle School held sway in this newspaper. Students, who'd been branded as shoplifters on 24th Street, spoke out about being punished as a group for the actions of a few. Teachers and parents wrote to defend the merits of public school and to expound on the joys and pitfalls of adolescence. While no one denied that a few students had made mistakes, they begged Voice readers not to dismiss James Lick students out of hand.

Now, in the aftermath of a much more disturbing incident at the school, James Lick finds itself once again reeling from media exposure and scrambling to pick up the pieces.

Police Escort Kids from Classroom

On Thursday, March 23, a San Francisco police officer arrested three eighth-grade James Lick Middle School students, two girls and a boy, in front of their classmates. The officer read them their Miranda rights and led them out of the building. A fourth student turned herself in and was arrested later that day.

They were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy and mixing a harmful substance with a drink. According to police, on Friday, March 17, three of the students helped plan and one actually poured nail polish remover into a teacher's water bottle while the teacher and most of the other students were out of the room. The teacher, Matthew Podwoski, later took a drink from the bottle, realized it was dangerous, and spit it out before swallowing. He was treated at San Francisco General Hospital for burns inside his mouth.

Podwoski, who teaches language and social studies, returned to the classroom the following week. In the days after the arrest, the students were suspended from school and sent to the Community Assessment and Referral Center (for juveniles involved in nonviolent felonies). The San Francisco School District later expelled one student and transferred the others to three separate middle schools.

According to the police, the boy, who was enrolled in Podwoski's language arts class, had had a dispute weeks earlier with the teacher. His classmates said he then enlisted several girls in the same class to poison Podwoski. (It was one of the girls, however, who actually poured the polish remover into the water bottle.)

The San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner, and Independent all reported the arrest and details of the incident. Several local TV stations also broadcast the news. The Chronicle published the story on page one of its March 24 edition.

"Now They Hate Us Even More"

"I think adults in Noe Valley hate us even more now," laments 13-year-old Monica, one of four James Lick students who took part in a roundtable discussion a few weeks after the arrest. The students, some of whom were friends of the students involved, read the story clipped from the Chronicle and spoke openly about the incident, and the shock waves it sent through their school community.

(The Voice allowed the students to use first names for this story. Parents gave permission for their children to be quoted.)

Mino, 14, echoed Monica's fears: "Before, people didn't have too much to point to. Now this gives them an excuse to say, 'They're crazy.'"

Seventh-grader Elektra, 12, said she has gotten a lot of questions about her school from other kids. At first it made her mad, but now she feels proud. "I felt defensive enough to write a letter to the editor [at the Chronicle]. And now I do tell people where I go to school, so they can see we're good kids."

Monica ventured a new approach: What if she and her classmates linked arms and marched peacefully down 24th Street? "We need to show everyone that we're okay and proud of who we are."

Principal Calls It an Isolated Incident

So who are they? James Lick enrolls about 500 students in grades six through eight. Some middle schools in the city enroll upwards of 1,200 students, but James Lick is on a par with other middle schools in the area, such as Everett and Potrero Hill Middle School. About a quarter of the students at James Lick are African-American, almost half are Latino, and a little more than a tenth are white. (One source for this story insisted we publicize the fact that none of the kids involved in the poisoning were African-American.)

Principal Michael Eddings maintains that the vast majority of James Lick students are sharp, well-behaved kids who are working hard to achieve success, both academically and socially.

"Ninety-eight percent of our kids are doing what's right 99 percent of the time," says Eddings. "This situation was an isolated incident."

Eddings finds it frustrating that the Chronicle in its front-page story characterized the school as "troubled by lagging test scores and behavior problems." In fact, Eddings says, James Lick students have improved their reading and math scores steadily over the past four years, and behavior problems are not schoolwide.

"This is a great school," agrees Adonis Torres, who taught for 20 years at Mission High before coming to Lick and taking on the job of head counselor. "We have a lot of things in place to help our kids," says Torres, citing homework clubs, gang-risk intervention activities, after-school classes in Capoeira and merrengue, and an anonymous hotline to report student problems.

After the news broke, Eddings enlisted the aid of the school district's Health Services Department, asking the staff to provide medical information and counseling to James Lick's entire student body. He also sent a note home to parents, telling them about the arrest and explaining that the incident was under investigation.

But most of the parents had already gotten the word.

Teri Cahill lives in Noe Valley and has been an active James Lick parent for six years. Her 14-year-old daughter Sadie is the second of her children to attend the school. "When I heard what happened, I just had a sinking feeling," Cahill said.

"When I heard it was on the front page of the newspaper, I said, 'My God, what kind of a school everyone must think this is!'" Really, said Cahill, what everyone should see is that mistakes are made, and that all of the students stand to learn a lesson from this experience.

Kids Point to Scene in American Pie

So how does something like a poisoning happen here?

Cahill's daughter Sadie, an eighth-grader, suggests that maybe the students "thought it was just a joke."

Or perhaps they were influenced by a scene in the movie American Pie, where a student puts a prescription laxative in another student's "mochaccino" drink. The movie plot was a predictable exercise in bathroom humor. But what happened to Podwoski was potentially deadly.

"They must have thought no one would be hurt," said Elektra.

The students at the roundtable discussion all claimed that the students who were arrested had first "copycatted" the laxative scene in American Pie. But luckily, Podwoski had not drunk from the coffee laced with laxative.

That was when the plan escalated to putting nail polish remover in the teacher's water bottle.

"Those students did not understand it was not just a prank," said Torres. "They had a lack of understanding of substances." Did he think the students would have read the warnings on the polish remover label and known it was harmful if swallowed? "I think kids this age are inured to a printed warning. It just doesn't make an impression."

Immediately following the arrests, the staff was instructed to use class time to talk about what happened and how the students felt about it.

The students said they were left with a very vivid impression -- of poisonous substances, of how much power they have to hurt another person, and how society deals with such crimes.

Teacher Recovering from Ordeal

Not to diminish the suffering of the teacher, but Assistant Principal Sue Scheiter says that Podwoski appears to be handling the situation well. She notes that he has received a strong outpouring of support, not only from his fellow teachers at James Lick but from the entire school district. (Matthew Podwoski declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Contrary to the impression that may have been left by the four students' actions, Podwoski "is wonderful -- a pleasure to observe in the classroom and is well liked by the students," Scheiter says.

Frances, an eighth-grader in Podwoski's morning social studies class, agrees. "I was shocked [to hear about the poisoning try]. He's a good teacher, and he's always helped me out. I mean, no one really 'hates him' hates him."

Scheiter says that the rest of the teachers also seem to be weathering the episode well, due to their strong commitment to the students. She is hopeful the incident will not create any lasting fears about safety in the classroom.

Parents Talk 'Zero Tolerance'

The parents may take a while longer to get over it.

Pat Solis, a parent of an eighth-grader, says she was stunned to learn that her son's classmates failed to inform another adult about a plan to poison a teacher. "Personally," Solis remarks, "I think between now and the end of the year it should be 'zero tolerance' for any kind of prank behavior."

Dianne Platner, whose fifth-grader may attend James Lick next year, also supports a harder line. "There is a case for using zero tolerance," she says. "It's unfortunate a child has to get to this point, but now that it's happened, we have to do something about it."

Teri Cahill, who works as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, also wants to make sure the students who were transferred or expelled get long-term counseling and support. "I've seen the result of not getting help. It can be very difficult to come back up in life."

Students Learn Right from Wrong

Meanwhile, the students continue to find their moral bearings.

"At first I thought the adults went over-board," says Mino. "But now I agree [with the public arrest and expulsion]. It totally taught everybody about it being so wrong."

Frances also approves of the school district's use of such harsh discipline. "They did the right thing."

Sadie reports that loose talk about arguments or revenge now has a chilling effect on her and her friends' conversation. "We could get in trouble for just knowing about it and not saying anything!"

It's Time to Move On

Laurel Turner, president of the school's PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association), was also shocked and saddened by the way the four students behaved in Mr. Podwoski's class. "As parents, it's very important to talk to our kids about it," she believes.

But in the weeks following the arrest, Turner threw herself into the annual talent show. She was a frequent fixture in the school hallways and auditorium, chatting with teachers and administrators and good-naturedly scooting kids to class after lunch, calling each one by name. She shows a deep knowledge of the students' lives and the issues at the school.

The talent show she helped produce involved 50 students and six staff members. This year, with so many kids participating and the addition of some stunning scenery made by the art classes, Turner feels it was one of the school's best.

Turner reflects on the last two months at James Lick, and sighs heavily. Like everyone else, she is hopeful the poisoning was only an aberration -- a blip on the radar screen.

"Of course, everybody will remember this terrible thing that happened. It has made us ask our kids important questions. But it's time we moved on."

To help students move on (and up), Turner invites Noe Valley to get involved at James Lick. Turner lists several ways you can make a difference: Some students need tutoring in reading and math. The gardening club is looking for an adult leader. And the students in the after-school program occasionally need nutritious snacks (the school district can only provide lunch leftovers). Plus, the school could use donations of art supplies, board games, basketballs, even ping-pong balls. If you can help, call the school at 695-5675 and leave a message for Laurel Turner. A PTSA member will contact you.