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Paranoia the Legacy of School Drug Busts : Atmosphere of Suspicion Prevails a Year After Raids Netted 142 Student Arrests

January 06, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

This school year, when Keith looked at a new classmate, he thought he saw a narc.

"There's this guy in my second-period class--a new guy named Nick," explained Keith, a 17-year-old senior at Patrick Henry High School. "On the second day of school, he asked me where he could get some stuff . . . some weed.

"I thought, 'Whoa, wait a minute!' . . . I was tripping! I was going, 'Whoa, no way!' "

They started to hang out together, but Keith made sure it was a drug-free friendship, just to be safe. It was only after Keith visited Nick after school one day, saw his home and met his parents that he was certain his new friend wasn't really an undercover narcotics officer. "That's when I knew he was cool."

This hasn't been a good year to be the new guy or girl in a San Diego high school, especially for those trying to buy illegal drugs.

Paranoia Remains

One year after San Diego police executed one of the largest and most controversial narcotics raids in the department's history--arresting 63 Patrick Henry High students and four from other schools on Jan. 5, 1984, who had allegedly sold drugs to an undercover officer posing as a student--a thick residue of paranoia remains at San Diego high school campuses.

The atmosphere of suspicion that first took hold in the Patrick Henry operation was intensified by subsequent drug stings at Hoover, Morse and Mira Mesa high schools.

All told, 142 students were arrested. The vast majority of those were convicted (mostly in Juvenile Court), placed in counseling and work programs, and expelled from school. Most of those who had reached their 18th birthdays were fined, placed on probation and work programs. One spent 42 days in jail.

Many of the Patrick Henry and Hoover students have completed their expulsion periods and are back in school, while many of the Morse and Mira Mesa students will return to school Monday, the start of the second semester.

Police and school officials hailed the dragnets as major successes, while the American Civil Liberties Union, defense attorneys and some parents said undercover officers had entrapped minors, encouraging them to break the law. Both sides agreed that an air of paranoia would result--Who's the narc in your homeroom?--but authorities reasoned that it is a good thing if it serves to slow down the use and marketing of illegal drugs on high school campuses.

Although a mood of suspicion is obvious, it is not apparent whether campus drug use and dealing are on the decline. Many students say drugs are as widespread as ever but have moved deeper underground.

To maintain the paranoia, authorities refuse to say whether undercover narcotics officers are still operating on campuses.

"If we had an ongoing operation, I wouldn't say anything because I wouldn't want to compromise it," said Lt. Skip DiCerchio of the inter-agency Narcotics Task Force. "And even if we didn't, I want the paranoia to remain so the drugs will stay off campus."

Similarly, schools Supt. Thomas Payzant has said that students and parents should not rule out the possibility of other undercover officers at district schools, including the schools targeted last year.

That strategy seems to working. Interviews with several Patrick Henry High students on the day before winter break revealed a strong undercurrent of suspicion. Many said they are convinced that an undercover officer--or perhaps two--is enrolled at the school. A senior named Mike pointed out a lanky boy with stringy blond hair and a flapping shirttail walking across the blacktop. "There's one," Mike said. "That skinny guy."

Prevalent Attitudes

Similar attitudes are prevalent at other high schools, according to school officials and law enforcement authorities

"There is an element of fear that they're going to be busted if they use drugs, and that's fine," said Jim Vlassis, principal of Mira Mesa High. "I wouldn't be surprised if they had an undercover agent here now. I hope there is one."

Sgt. Al Beckett of the police-school task force said he knew of an instance in which a legitimate transfer student was accused of being an undercover officer by classmates. The harassment became so severe that the girl had to transfer to another school, Beckett said.

While authorities were pleased with the drug operations, they are also quick to emphasize that drug abuse is still commonplace.

"I think the bust had a tremendously positive effect on the campus," said Henry Lawrence, principal at Patrick Henry High. "We know that youngsters are still involved in drugs; that's a community-wide problem.

"And I am sure some of these same youngsters (arrested last year) are still involved. But on the campus, we've felt some real change. There just isn't the kind of brazenness there was last year."

No Impact at Junior Highs

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