State records indicate Rowan County has a drug problem. This week, residents learned that it extends to one of its best schools.
Four faculty members from Bostian Elementary were arrested Tuesday and accused of being part of a ring that illegally obtained thousands of doses of the painkiller hydrocodone.
China Grove police and state investigators say family physician Orrin Walker unlawfully wrote hundreds of prescriptions that were filled by his wife, Abby, her co-workers and friends.
Orrin Walker, 48, operated Main Street Family Practice. Abby Walker, 44, was a second-grade teacher at Bostian. Both were charged with trafficking opiates by possession, according to authorities.
As part of the four-month investigation, Meredith Wiggins Raynes, 43, a third-grade teacher at Bostian, and teacher assistants Alisha Beaver Christian, 31, and Tammy Aldridge Eudy, 45, face charges of conspiracy to commit prescription fraud by forgery and multiple counts of obtaining controlled substances by fraud.
Three other women, including two educators, were arrested Tuesday on the same charges:
School officials reacted quickly to the arrests. Walker resigned in the spring. Eudy and Christian were suspended without pay on Wednesday. Raynes’ status wasn’t clear.
“We have been reassured by law enforcement that at no time was the safety of any child at Bostian Elementary impacted by these activities,” Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Moody said.
“Now that we have the employee names, we can move forward with our own investigation and appropriate personnel action.”
Despite those assurances, the arrests caught hundreds of Bostian parents by surprise. Many of them took to Facebook and other social-media sites to express shock or anger. Others, such as Jennifer DeNicholas and Ronnie Tucker, voiced support in interviews for their school, Principal Lisa Sigmon and the other Bostian teachers.
“The parents who say they are taking their children out of Bostian are the ones who are never in the school,” said DeNicholas, a former school PTO president whose youngest daughter was taught by Abby Walker last year.
“I want this to be clear: The acts of one person or several people do not define a community. They do not define a school. This is not Bostian.”
Tucker, married to a Bostian volunteer and substitute teacher, has three daughters who have been educated at the school, which he described as highly successful and close-knit.
“Prescription drugs, I guess they’re getting so easy to come by. But it’s still surprising that a grown adult would jeopardize our children and our school’s name,” he said.
“Just to think that this will reflect badly on all the teachers who had nothing to do with it.”
Two sets of stats
State statistics paint contrasting pictures of Bostian and its surrounding county.
The school, with roughly 300 students, exceeds county and state levels for small classes, test scores, campus safety and experienced teachers.
Rowan County, which is about 35 miles northeast of Charlotte, stands near the top in another ranking – the number of deaths due to “unintentional poisonings.” Drug deaths have skyrocketed across North Carolina over the last decade and are about to overtake traffic accidents in pure numbers.
Rowan also is near the top in the number of prescriptions written for opioids each year, according to an April 30 legislative report. Those are key components in such prescription painkillers as Oxycontin and hydrocodone. They are also highly addictive. Oxycontin is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the state; hydrocodone ranks fourth.
According to authorities, Orrin Walker wrote 200 fraudulent prescriptions for hydrocodone between October 2012 and March. Up to 25,000 pills may have been involved. N.C. Medical Board records indicate Walker has surrendered his doctor’s license.
The Salisbury Post has reported that authorities say the pills were not resold. Instead, they were used by some members of the ring.
All employees of the Rowan-Salisbury School System undergo drug testing and background checks, officials said Wednesday.
Yet Eudy, one of the Bostian teacher assistants arrested Tuesday, already faces a December court case for seven charges of illegally obtaining controlled substances in 2012, records indicate.
Asked how Eudy had a job at Bostian given her earlier drug arrests, Principal Sigmon deferred the question to the school district and declined to comment.
District spokeswoman Rita Foil told the Observer she had not heard of Eudy’s record and needed to gather more information before commenting.
On Wednesday, China Grove was abuzz over the arrests.
“You hate to think something like that is going on in your own community,” said Dale Keiger, owner of Dale’s Sporting Goods on Main Street, down the block from Orrin Walker’s practice.
“It’s crazy,” said Lauren Merrifield, who works at Main Street Tobacco. “These people are supposed to be upstanding citizens, doctors and teachers.”
Jennifer DeNicholas said she had misgivings when she learned last year that Abby Walker would be one of her daughter’s second-grade teachers. She said she had found Walker to be occasionally brusque and a little more short-tempered.
But she said Walker was an excellent teacher who was highly involved with her students, and creative and enthusiastic about her lesson plans.
As with most of the town, DeNicholas’ three children saw the headlines about the teachers’ arrests. DeNicholas said she tried to turn that shock into a teaching moment.
“I wanted them to understand that sometimes good people do bad things,” she said. “Just because they made bad decisions doesn’t mean they can’t do better.” Staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and staff researcher Maria David contributed.