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July 20, 2004 - The Los Angeles Times (CA)

District To Evaluate Drug Busts In Schools

Critics Say Undercover Officers Catch Small-Time Offenders And Special-Ed Students; Proponents Say It's The Best Way to Fight Dealers

By Jason Felch, Times Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to launch a review of the police program of sending undercover officers into high schools to buy drugs amid questions over whether the busts are fair and effective.

The School Buy program, which is conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department on campuses across the city, caught 252 students selling drugs over the last year. Police officials declared the campaign a success, noting that it caught 105 more students than last year's program.

But critics said success should not be measured by the number of students caught. They question whether the officers are actually targeting serious dealers. They also point to the rise in special-education students caught in recent years.

"It's my intention to do a review to make sure that the program is appropriate and protective of students' rights," said Kevin Reed, general counsel for the school district, whose review is likely to begin this week.

According to Los Angeles school district records, 28 special-education students were referred for expulsion through the program this year, the highest number in the five years for which records were available. Last year, there were 24, and in the 2001-02 school year there were seven.

Special-education students made up about 15% of the 191 students referred for expulsion this year, roughly the same percentage of special-education students in the district high schools.

"We're finding that more and more special-education kids are being caught," said Fonna Bishop, principal of Hollywood High School, where about a third of the students caught this year were in special education. "These are young people who have problems, learning disabilities, emotional trouble. They want to make friends, they want to be cool. They don't think about consequences."

Karen Garner, a teacher at Youth Opportunities Unlimited, an alternative high school where some expelled students are sent, said some special-education students were being "set up" by other students.

In one instance, an older student had a special-education student act as middleman in a drug deal, Garner said. "I'm not so sure he understood what was going on."

A number of educators and school officials said that as serious drug dealers have learned to evade police on campus, it is students with disabilities and emotional troubles who are increasingly arrested.

Difficult to Distinguish

LAPD officials said they make an effort not to target special-education students, but often can't distinguish them from other students.

"We try to stay away from special-ed kids," said Det. Marcella Piersol, who oversees the program. "There are other things going on with these special-ed kids. We don't want to add to their problems."

In Los Angeles Unified, special-education students can include those with minor learning impairments as well as those with serious developmental disabilities, according to Roger O'Leary-Archer, director of special education policy.

The majority of special-education students have what are considered mild to moderate disabilities, such as some forms of dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, O'Leary-Archer said. Some face more serious challenges, such as psychological problems or physical impairments. All special-education students are supposed to receive instruction and services designed to help them succeed in school.

Despite the criticisms, the school-buy program continues to have the support of some educators, who say the undercover work is the only way fight drug dealing.

"They're able to identify some major dealers on campus," said Doris Lasiter, principal of Birmingham High School, where about a dozen students were arrested in a one-day sweep early last month. "With staffing cuts, I don't have enough people to be in all places."

Proponents of the program argue that the fact that the students are in special education should not be a point of concern, because those teens should not be selling drugs either.

The LAPD and Los Angeles Unified have no formal policy for the 30-year-old drug-bust program. The police department selects the school where undercover officers go. But the LAPD in recent years has made a stronger effort to collaborate with school principals on how to conduct operations.

While the school district once had discretion over how to punish students caught selling drugs on campus, a 1996 state law requires that all such students be expelled, regardless of quantity or circumstances, school officials said.

In the case of special-education students, federal law prohibits the expulsion if their behavior is "a manifestation of their disability." School officials said federal law trumps state law, and therefore they only expel special-education students whose behavior is not considered to be influenced by their condition.

Of the 28 special-education students referred for expulsion this year, 15 were expelled. School officials note that about a third of all referrals do not result in expulsion for various reasons, including lack of evidence.

Effectiveness Criticized

But criticism of the program extends beyond the issue of special-education students.

The school district's review of the program was sparked in part by the large number of students being recommended for expulsion for selling minor quantities of drugs, school officials said. The bigger pushers, some educators believe, evade being caught.

Over the last five years, the unit's work has resulted in the expulsion of 567 students, school district records show. Those students also face felony criminal charges.

"A lot of these kids are doing a friend a favor, being the in-between person," said Linda Wilson, who for a decade has coordinated Los Angeles Unified's Student Discipline Proceedings Unit. "Some just made a stupid mistake. Some are lonely and just trying to make friends. Not many of them are the hard-core drug dealers. I don't know that it does much to decrease drugs on campus."

Drug availability in Los Angeles schools has remained largely unchanged over the last seven years, according to a recent survey by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found that of students asked, 37.5% said they had been offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property in the last 12 months, compared with 27.8% nationally. The Los Angeles number has changed little since 1997, when 36.2% reported being offered.

Gaining Students' Trust

Both critics and supporters agree undercover officers are effective at gaining the trust of students.

Officer Pamela Meesri, a 26-year-old with a master's degree in public administration, enrolled in Los Angeles Unified high schools posing as a transfer student this past year.

Meesri and her fellow undercover officers bought about $35,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, methamphetamine, morphine, Ritalin and steroids. While undercover, she went to classes, met with school counselors and was treated the same any other student.

She says she befriended students she thought might sell her drugs. Principals are the only school staff members informed of the undercover officers' real identities.

At the end of every school semester, police sweep into the dozen or so targeted schools and make arrests, sometimes as many as 30 per school.

"It should be a gun buy program, not a drug buy," said school board member David Tokofsky. "In 1967, a major drug buy may have been frontier breaking. At this point, with the violence from gun death, if the police experts believe they have to be in the school, we ought to concentrate on violence."

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