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Dubious 'Stings' at Schools

After 30 years, undercover drug cops may have outlived their usefulness on Los Angeles campuses.

August 20, 2004

Student 0350405 seems precisely the kind of student the Los Angeles Police Department was trying to protect when it launched its undercover "School Buy" program 30 years ago to rid Los Angeles Unified School District campuses of drugs. She has good grades and an unblemished disciplinary record and is a star on her school's softball team and a role model in her neighborhood. Or at least she was, until she was arrested last spring for selling marijuana to an LAPD officer posing as a student. Now she's been ordered to spend her senior year in an off-campus program for gangbangers, truants, kids on probation and other troublemakers.

The girl, assigned a number to protect her identity in disciplinary hearings, was one of 252 students arrested last school year by LAPD officers and expelled by district officials. In 30 years, School Buy busts have snared more than 8,000 teenagers and confiscated what police calculate is more than $7 million worth of narcotics.

But school officials have begun to question whether the disruption to student lives is too high a price, particularly in the absence of proof that the program cuts the flow of drugs.

The way School Buy is supposed to work is simple. Young officers are given a month of training and a cover story, then enrolled in schools to befriend kids and ferret out drug dealers. At the end of every semester, police sweep through campuses arresting students. The haul, mostly baggies of marijuana, is displayed on television.

The way it works in real life is not so tidy. Students say officers badger classmates who are not drug dealers but who agree to find drugs for them as a favor. Concerns about entrapment keep many cases from being prosecuted. And because drug dealers tend to be wary of new customers, those arrested are increasingly kids with disabilities or emotional problems.

"Instead of the guy slinging dope on campus, you wind up with a random collection of whichever kids might be naive, stupid, persuadable or gullible enough to find a joint for a stranger," said Kevin Reed, the school district's legal counsel. He has launched a review of the program -- the district's first.

Student surveys suggest that the availability of drugs in city schools is unchanged over the last decade -- slightly more than one-third of students say they are offered, sold or given drugs on campus each year. School Buy commander Capt. Sharyn Buck says the deterrent value of annual busts kept those numbers from rising. "Knowing there could be a narc on campus has stopped the blatant drug dealing we used to see."

Los Angeles is the only big-city district in the nation that allows this kind of undercover operations. School Buy was the brainchild of then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and, with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, the linchpin of LAPD efforts to keep kids off drugs. But most DARE officers have since been pulled from schools and dispatched to the streets, their program having been found to have little long-term effect.

Barring dramatic findings of positive results in the school study, it may also be time for School Buy officers to pack their backpacks.

When the program began in 1974, the district had no police force of its own. Today, Los Angeles Unified has 350 police officers. Every middle and high school has at least one; they're the ones who ought to work with students and staff members to cut the flow of drugs. Thirty years ago, school officials could consider individual circumstances when punishing kids caught in campus stings. The nation's take-no-prisoners war on drugs ended that discretion. In 1996, state law required that any student selling drugs on campus be expelled. A 1998 federal law makes those students ineligible for two years for loans or grants to help them pay for college. Limiting educational options for teens already flirting with failure won't help keep them on the straight and narrow.

Keeping drugs off campus is not just a worthwhile goal, it's an obligation. It is also impossible for the Los Angeles Police Department to accomplish.

If the softball players and advanced placement students and student council leaders are using drugs -- or at least know right off where they can be found -- it will take more than annual roundups to turn things around. School police and administrators accustomed to letting the LAPD bear all the weight should take back their responsibility.

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