It's been almost a decade since undercover cops infiltrated a high-school campus in San Diego to catch young drug dealers in the act. On Jan. 3, police arrested 15 students: nine from University City High School and six from Patrick Henry High School in Del Cerro, the result of a semester-long covert operation.
According to police, each of the 15 students sold drugs directly to a cop posing as a student (one undercover officer was assigned to each school), with combined sales netting 6.3 grams of marijuana, five tabs of ecstasy, 6.4 grams of psychedelic mushrooms and 12 prescription pain pills.
What happened in San Diego is something that's played out in a few U.S. cities during the past year: a dozen or so students, mostly boys, arrested for selling small quantities of what tend to be party drugs for the high-school set. In turn, parents wonder whether a few joints and a small handful of Vicodin is worth the cost to the justice system and the impact such an arrest has on a kid's life.
“It's not a lot of drugs,” said Damon Mosler, who heads the San Diego County District Attorney's narcotics division, “but [narcs] don't try to buy very much.... If you're acting as a 16- or 17-year-old kid, you're not going to have a lot of disposable income.”
Although two of the students were 18 when they were arrested, all will be tried as juveniles since they were underage when the purchases were made. Punishment could range from counseling and probation to as much as four years at a juvenile detention facility. “I would imagine these cases will be on the lower end,” Mosler said. Because the San Diego Unified School District has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drug sales, “each of them will not go back to [their high school]-that's one thing that's for sure.”
The San Diego Police Department launched the operation with the school district's cooperation, said Don Braun, the district's police chief. Police Capt. Shelley Zimmerman said the operation was complaint-driven. “We received an anonymous letter regarding one of the campuses.... We also had community complaints that drug dealing was occurring in and around those campuses.” Police also looked at drug-related arrests near the campuses and suspension and expulsion rates for drug-related offenses, she said.
According to school district statistics, last year 64 students were expelled for drug-related offenses district wide. Six of those expulsions were from Patrick Henry, up from two the year before. During the past two years, four students were expelled from University City for drugs.
Braun emphasized that these weren't the worst schools in the district. “There were a pool of schools that were looked at. It would be inaccurate to say these were the two worst.”
Zimmerman declined to say whether there were similar operations happening at other schools, nor would she reveal the gender of the two officers. A parent of a Patrick Henry student told CityBeat his son said the narc was female. At University City, Candace, a junior who declined to give her last name, said the undercover officer there was a female named “Pam.”
“The only class anyone remembered having with her was ceramics,” Candace said. “I remember a bunch of guys I know trying to figure out how old she was. They thought she was an intern or something.... No one thought she was a narc.”
Mosler said he's aware that questions about entrapment come up when an undercover cop is female and the majority of arrestees are male.
“I always review who the undercover officers are,” he said. “When we did raves, I always wanted to make sure they weren't really good-looking girls. I want a picture of what they look like ahead of time.” Almost all of the students in this case sold more than once, Mosler said. “To me, that's a good way to beat entrapment. Entrapment is, ‘I'll help you out this one time.' I feel comfortable the police followed good policies and procedures.”
Margaret Dooley, spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that advocates for non-punitive drug policies, questioned whether this sort of sting operation is the best way to address adolescent drug use.
“If you're from the criminal-justice system, perhaps it makes sense to go in looking for arrests, but the question is, was that really the best thing to do?” she said. “Was there any kind of effort to work with the school to say, ‘The community is concerned that there's drug use, that there's drug selling going on on this campus'?”
School district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer said that though Superintendent Carl Cohn knew about the operation ahead of time, principals at the two schools did not. But, she added, the response from parents so far has been positive. “Sometimes it takes something that may be a little drastic,” she said. “This was a good wake-up call” for students.
Back at University City high school, Candace said that “no one's surprised” about which students were arrested. As for deterrence-the whole point behind such an operation-“it might work for a little while, but, in the end I think things will go back to the same.” On the other hand, she added, “it was a good idea if it works.”
Intern Darryn Bennett contributed to this story.