Undercover High


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Michelle is 29 years old and the mother of two, but she looks 17. Petite and blonde, it is her curse and her gift. When she was going through the San Diego Police Academy, she was often razzed about her teenage looks.

Michelle had been on the beat for two years, wearing a uniform and flak vest, when she was approached about a new assignment. She couldn’t tell any of her fellow officers about it, not even her partner. At first, she couldn’t even tell her husband.

A few weeks later she enrolled as a student at Madison High School in Clairemont, using the name Melissa. Her assignment: to infiltrate the school’s cliques and locate drug dealers. It didn’t take long. The second day, she saw a student buy marijuana in class while a teacher worked in the front of the room. Soon she was regularly buying pot, LSD and crystal meth from the teenagers on campus. Once, she bought pot during class by passing the money across the room in a piece of folded paper.

Michelle spent four months posing as a high school student, trading notes in class, gossiping at lunch, turning down dates and buying drugs. Some kids were suspicious. Some whispered that “Melissa” was a narc. But they still sold her drugs.

Michelle’s assignment was one of two undercover operations run by the San Diego Police Department at high schools in 1998—the first in eight years on a San Diego campus. Although they make for great TV shows, undercover campaigns are considered something of a last resort. In Los Angeles, they are common, but not here.

This year, the SDPD decided it was time to do another one. Studies and arrest records showed drug problems on and around the campuses escalating, especially the use of hard drugs. “With teenagers, it’s really difficult to get into their subculture,” says Lieutenant Robert Kanaski of the SDPD’s narcotics division. “The only way to do anything with them is to infiltrate the subculture.”

Michelle was recruited along with Shane, a clean-cut 25-year-old beat cop who had been on the force for three years. (At the request of the San Diego Police Department, neither Michelle nor Shane is identified by their last names.) Shane’s assignment was Mira Mesa High School. There had been reports of drug activity around both campuses. But Madison and Mira Mesa were targeted because they were fairly typical, not special.

Both Michelle and Shane were excited about the assignment. They’re gung-ho young officers. They saw the undercover duty as a good career opportunity. Michelle had visions of 21 Jump Street, the TV show that starred a young Johnny Depp as an undercover teenage cop. Shane wants to work narcotics as he advances in the department.

What they got was the opportunity to witness, from the perspective of a student, the depth of the drug culture on San Diego campuses. When it was over, 22 kids were arrested, their lives forever altered. And administrators at two high schools were reexamining their approach to dealing with drugs on campus.

MONTH BEFORE they started school, Michelle and Shane began spending time at malls and beaches, hanging where high school kids hang, picking up on the slang, the styles, the hot bands.

On his first day at school, Shane wore baggy pants and a T-shirt, and he knew the difference between “chronic” and “phat.” He called himself Sean. A scruffy kid came up to him during a break and asked, straight out, if he “partied.” His new friend showed him around at lunch, giving him a guided tour of who does what and where. Shane thought it was going to be easy. “There was way more activity than I anticipated, way more,” he says. “I told Sarge, ‘I’m going to have 50 bodies, no problem.’”

But from day one, some kids accused Shane of being a narc. He just looked too square. He was often confronted. “You try to respond like a 17-year-old,” Shane says. “You say, ‘I’m not a narc, you’re a narc.’”

Shane decided to lay low for a time and not seem too eager. He spent his days in the routine of school, going to classes, eating lunch and watching the swirl of drug activity around him. His first week, he saw two students smoke a pipe during a shop class while the teacher worked in another part of the room. Casual transactions were made in bathrooms and classrooms.

After three weeks, Shane made his first buy. During class he saw a student pass several hits of acid, slips of paper that are easily concealed. The next day Shane bought four hits for $5 each. “Acid is big,” he says. “When someone gets a sheet, which is a hundred hits, it sells like that.”

Once he started buying, Shane was in. He could flash the drugs around, show everybody that he had stuff. On a daily basis, kids asked him if he wanted to head to a friend’s house or hang out across the street to get high. But with some kids still calling him a narc, he always said no. He wanted to avoid situations where he might have to decline a toke and look suspicious. When the other kids were heading off after school, he always passed, using a variety of excuses.

Shane began hanging out with a group of kids who went to school on their own schedule. At Mira Mesa, a truant receives a “green slip,” which is supposed to win the student a trip to detention hall or a session of “Saturday school.” Kids would collect them, Shane says. One guy bragged that he had 50 and had never once gone to detention.

“What kind of accountability is that?” Shane asks. “If you have 50 Saturday schools and you haven’t gone to one, and you’re still in school, there is no reason not to laugh.”

Shane racked up five or six green slips himself, usually for ditching class. He never went to detention, and the school never phoned his “dad,” a narcotics sergeant who was prepared in case the school did call.

MICHELLE WORKED HARD to fit in with her classmates. She wore big flannel shirts, dark jeans and lots of eyeliner. She wrote notes on her hands and jeans. She started smoking. Occasionally she’d poke her eyes so they’d look red and bloodshot, and during class she’d act bored and distracted.

Within a few days she made her first deal, 15 minutes before a class, in the middle of the quad. Any public spot on campus was good enough, she says, although transactions often took place behind the cafeteria. The minimarket just off campus was also popular. The spots weren’t a secret.

“If you’re going to the minimart first thing in the morning, you’re either going to smoke, whether it be cigarettes or dope, or you’re going there to buy,” Michelle says. “If there were 10 people there, nine of them did dope.”

San Diego Police officers, who didn’t know about Michelle, occasionally showed up at the minimart. The word would go out among the kids: “Five-oh in the house.” The police presence did little to disrupt the kids’ drug routine. But it made the kids suspicious of Michelle.

One of Michelle’s biggest contacts came one morning when she was walking to the minimart. She had been afraid to approach a boy she knew was dealing. That morning he called out to her, asking if she was looking to get “hooked up.” She eventually bought pot from him four or five times.

As the days progressed, Michelle made friends. She would get personal notes and pictures from her classmates. When guys asked her out, she said she had a boyfriend. And every once in a while she would get a surprise. One girl, a good student, arranged an LSD buy for her. Like Shane, Michelle says LSD was plentiful.

One night, several of her new friends went to a free Christian youth group event at the Sports Arena. Several got stoned first. “They didn’t go for the speech; they went for the fun,” Michelle says. “That’s what high school kids want: something that is free and fun.”

The stoned kids were often the life of the party. “If kids see someone stoned in class,” Michelle explains, “they think that’s cool; they can get away with it. These people are funny. It directs attention to them, which is what they want.”

Hanging with her new friends, Michelle didn’t do well in school. She was getting mostly D’s and F’s. She was failing gym class because, like her friends, she refused to “dress out” (put on gym clothes). Cool people don’t dress out. They’re given the option of walking around the track during class.

AS THEY RECOUNT their days as high school dopers, both Shane and Michelle often mention teachers and administrators. They are always off to the side, it seems, but rarely interfere in the students’ day-to-day drug culture. Both cops saw transactions, kids nodding off and general druggie behavior taking place in classrooms with teachers nearby. “Were the kids worried about getting busted? Absolutely not,” Shane says. “They think it’s a joke.”

Both young officers are careful not to directly criticize the teachers, noting that teachers often are underpaid and overworked. But Shane and Michelle tell similar stories. They felt that some teachers had a sort of tacit understanding that as long as the stoners were not disruptive, the teachers wouldn’t ask too many questions. (Don’t ask; don’t tell—the high school version.) Instead, the teachers would focus on the kids who were willing and able to learn.

Other teachers were simply oblivious, they say. Both cops believe teachers need to be better educated to recognize the signs

of kids under the influence or dealing. “If teachers want to know, they should just listen,” Shane says. “The kids aren’t whispering. All they have to do is open their eyes and ears.”

Both schools had taken aggressive anti-drug measures. They had removed lockers, and the stated zero-tolerance policy was well known. Both have closed campuses, which means kids are not allowed to leave during lunch. There are strict truancy rules. But the kids didn’t care, Shane and Michelle say, noting an attitude on campus that surprised them. High school isn’t ancient history for either one. Yet they were shocked by the students’ sheer disregard for authority and their casual willingness to confront teachers and administrators.

“They have absolutely no respect,” Shane says, shaking his head. “I know if I’d ever told a teacher to F off, I’d have been in serious trouble. These kids have no problem telling a teacher off. They just don’t care.”

There was a school-wide anti-drug assembly during Shane’s time on the campus. “It was a joke to the kids,” he says. “They just laughed. They were proud to stand up and say, ‘I smoke [dope].’”

But most of the drug activity Shane and Michelle saw occurred before and after school, often just off campus. This is no-man’s-land for the schools; teachers and administrators aren’t allowed to follow kids once they leave school grounds.

But as detached as the school authority figures were, Michelle rarely heard or saw parents. “A lot of these kids that I bought drugs from didn’t have a lot of parental involvement,” she says. “The parents didn’t know what was going on.” The kids were great liars, she says. They always had a good story to squirm an extra few bucks or explain away a late afternoon. But fractured home lives took their toll. Every day, she saw the tension.

“The pressure they get from home ... it affects them,” Michelle says. “These kids go to school stressed. I felt it. I was automatically stressed when I got on that campus.”

NEAR THE END of the semester, Madison High students became more suspicious of their new friend Melissa. In a completely unrelated case, San Diego Police busted one of her connections. The kids began to suspect a narc. Students stopped talking to her. She began looking over her shoulder more often. She couldn’t tell her superiors that she felt threatened, she says; they would have shut down the operation. One girl looked her in the eye and said, “I’m not selling to you. I know you’re a cop.”

“It’s a big campus when no one wants to be around you,” Michelle says. On one level, she was offended. “I took it personally, as ‘How dare they! How dare they think I’m a cop!’” She made two more buys, but the project was almost over.

For Shane, the rumors that he was a narc never subsided. As many buys as he made, as many times as he talked the talk, he never was able to entirely shake the label.

At night, Shane had to be careful when he went out as himself. He never knew if he might run into a teacher or a student. One day he was startled on campus when he recognized a maintenance worker from his own high school days. His superiors discussed the possibility of shutting down the operation, but a few days later the man finished his work and left the campus.

One day, near the end of his assignment, Shane was walking across campus when someone threw a full can of Coke at his head. His backup team began watching the campus before and after school to keep an eye on him. A few days later, Shane found a note on his car: “Watch your back, pig.” The police decided to shut down the operation.

On Tuesday, April 14, 30 officers swept onto the Mira Mesa High School campus and made 10 arrests, walking the suspects off campus in handcuffs to a command post down the street. They arrested an adult later that afternoon. A month later, on May 20, police officers moved on Madison, arresting nine students and two adults.

Principal Russell Vowinkel of Madison High first learned of the undercover operation on his campus when he was summoned to the district office the day before the arrests. At first, Vowinkel was upset that he had not been trusted with knowledge of the secret operation and disturbed by the conclusions the community might draw about the school.

Several parents screamed entrapment at Vowinkel and accused the police of treating their children unfairly. “They were absolutely in denial,” Vowinkel says. The more he heard, the more he grew to support the undercover effort. “I’m not sure intervention is powerful enough to deter these kids,” he says.

Both stings received media coverage, including lengthy stories in the local papers and on television. In the days following the arrests, the schools attempted to organize community meetings to discuss the drug problem. Attendance was low. About 15 parents showed up for one meeting, says Tom Hall, the chief of the school district’s security force. As the parent of a substance-abusing son, he was particularly frustrated.

“From a personal perspective, I know parents don’t always see it,” says Hall, who spent 31 years with the SDPD. “My son used to come home high and I didn’t know it, and I’m a cop.” To him, the stings confirm that drugs are more prevalent than “some people want to admit.”

The stories the two officers told, their portrayals of what they saw on the two campuses, touched many sensitive areas. Both schools held meetings with teachers. Marc Knapp, president of the San Diego Education Association, the teachers’ union, resents any implication that teachers coddled or ignored known drug users.

“I don’t think training teachers to be police officers is the answer,” he says. The average San Diego high school teacher is dealing with classes of more than 40 students. Knapp says they have to strike a “delicate balance” in classrooms, where kids are more than eager to challenge authority.

Knapp does believe the schools need to do a better job of enforcing antidrug policies. “Sometimes it’s better to have kids in class and try to work with them than to just send them into the [correctional] system and have them come right back,” he says. The undercover operations are “not necessarily a bad idea,” he says, because they “keep kids on their toes.”

Principal Rachel Flanagan of Mira Mesa High School doesn’t say much about the undercover operation on her campus, other than to call it old news. The operation was effective and well managed, she concedes, but she didn’t like the impression it left about her school, or some of the stories that came out. “Some of the stories were true, and some were unsubstantiated,” Flanagan says. She believes the problem has been exaggerated. “We have 2,200 students here, and they got 11 kids. Think about that. I think that tells me how big the problem is.”

But Shane and Michelle say they would have made many, many more arrests if they had been able to integrate with the students more. Twenty-two is nothing compared to how much activity they saw each day on campus, they say.

WHEN IT CAME time for the arrests, Michelle and Shane showed up in full uniform to confront students, who, in some cases, had befriended them. They got the full force of the anger. “I guess they felt betrayed,” Michelle says. “They will thank me later for it. This is a big deal. They should take it and learn from it.”

“There has to be some accountability,” Shane says. “These kids probably won’t do this again because they’ve been held accountable.”

Of the 22 arrested, most received probation. One of the adults had been convicted of drug charges before and was expected to do some jail time. All the students were expelled, and most were transferred to a continuation school. Many of the kids didn’t even show up for their expulsion hearing.

These days Michelle and Shane are back on the beat. They saw the aftermath of their stings, heard the complaints that they had exaggerated the drug problem. They only regret that they didn’t have more time.

“This culture is so hard to infiltrate,” Michelle says. “I think this is the only way right now that we have to get in there and find out what is actually going on. They don’t sell to just anybody. They sell to people they know. They sell to people they trust.”

SDPD officials refuse to say if they are planning any more undercover stings.

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