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The Truth About High School Drug Stings: Are Undercover Cops Invading Your Campus?

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By Hilary George-Parkin

Tuesday morning. Second period. Your mind is starting to wander when -- BAM! -- the classroom door bursts opens and a pack of police officers wearing bulletproof vests storm in, ready to haul away one of your classmates in handcuffs.

This was the scene at three Temecula, California high schools in December 2012, when a total of 22 kids were arrested on charges of selling narcotics on school property. For the four months prior, they'd been the targets of an undercover sting carried out by the local sheriff's office. Two young deputies had posed as new students, arriving in August along with the rest of the school -- except instead of acing quizzes and finding prom dates, their goal was to track down teens who were selling drugs on campus. This wasn't "21 Jump Street," this was real life.

Before the semester was up, they had amassed enough evidence to arrest almost two dozen students, with a haul that included marijuana, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, and meth. But they also managed to ignite a growing controversy surrounding a tactic that's been used in high schools around the country for decades.

Those in favor of undercover operations like these say they keep drug dealers on their toes and away from schools. Others argue that they are ineffective and breed distrust -- and worse, target minorities and kids with special needs.

The media is taking notice: Last month, Rolling Stone told the story of one of these students, an autistic boy from Temecula who sold one of the undercover cops less than a gram of marijuana. His parents are suing the school district, saying the officer badgered their son for drugs for months until he found a way to get them. A high school senior in Florida named Justin Laboy told NPR that he only agreed to score pot for an agent because he was trying to impress her; he also serenaded her in front of his class and asked her to prom.

Samantha Cox was a junior at Exeter High School in California when 12 students, ages 15 to 19, were charged with drug counts after an eight-month sting. "I was in class when it happened," she says of the arrests, which took place when the school was put in sudden lockdown mode. "No one knew what was going on. I thought there was a shooter or maybe a bomb." Once the dust settled, she and the rest of her classmates realized what was going on. All dozen students were expelled, and now, since other schools in the area won't take them, most have had to enroll in G.E.D. programs.

Other recent busts have rocked high schools in Texas, Washington, and Tennessee, where Donna Rogan, a 23-year-old deputy, was plucked from the police academy to go undercover at a high school in Carter County. "I got lucky," she explains. "At the school that I went into, kids were super open about getting high and ditching class. It wasn't an underground or hush-hush thing at all -- I didn't even have to ask."

Donna spent nine months in her role as rebellious 17-year-old senior "Hannah Reagan"; during that time she befriended a number of students and tried to figure out which ones might lead her to suppliers. By the end of the school year, the sheriff's office arrested nine students and five adults and declared the operation a success, but Donna didn't anticipate how close she'd get to the kids. "I think that was one of the hardest things for me," she explains. "After that length of time with anyone, you really start to care about them."

Not everyone has quite so much sympathy. Jonathan Greenberg, the superintendent of California's Perris Union High School District -- where 24 students from two high schools were arrested late last year -- says that he has no regrets about OK'ing the sting. For the students caught selling drugs, he says, the arrests send a strong message: "We hope for them that this is the worst day of their lives." As for the other students, they "have a right to go to the bathroom without this kind of nefarious behavior happening around them."

But do the ends justify the means? Larry Johnson, president-elect of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, isn't so sure they do. "What happens if that kid injures himself or someone else as a result of his drug dealing because of this operation?" he posits. "I think we owe it to families to intervene immediately if a kid has narcotics inside a school."

Undercover stings are perhaps the most drastic measure in the war against drugs on campus, but they're usually accompanied by other methods. Briana Southern, 17, says that police with drug detection dogs have searched her AP classrooms in Lakewood, California several times over the past couple of years.

"Realizing that there might actually be a drug problem in our area is kind of strange," she says, adding that although students post about drinking and drugs on social media, "it doesn't really click in your mind that the people in your class actually do the things that we're always taught not to."

But while police intervention can teach teenagers the necessary, if painful, lesson that they're not invincible after all, it may also teach them, for better or worse, to be less trusting. After the sting at Exeter, Samantha says that students' relationships with school counselors were strained. "It was a good idea, but I think it could have been done so differently," she says. Her younger brother currently attends the school, and while drugs are still a reality on campus, now kids are "a lot more cautious about it."

Donna, the Tennessee deputy, has taken a break from undercover work to be with her family in New York. She says that while the community response to the arrests was overwhelmingly positive, some of the lingering effects still give her pause.

"One year later, it still makes me a very reserved person," she says. "I'm cautious of making new friends and a little wary of people in general. Especially moving to a new community and actually being the new kid myself, it makes it really -- I wouldn't say difficult -- but different."

"People always ask me, 'Are you glad you did it? Do you regret doing it?'" she adds. "And I still don't have an answer."

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