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A Cop In Class

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The young woman seemed like a typical, though somewhat troubled, senior during her semester-long stint last year at two Florida high schools. She enrolled in classes, did homework, and spent hours hanging out with her friends.

But Jennifer wasn't attending the Seminole County public schools to soak up knowledge or earn credits for college. She was gathering an entirely different set of facts. An undercover agent with the Seminole County sheriff's office, the 23-year-old rookie, who has been identified only by her first name, impersonated a 12th grader in order to collect information on drugs, gangs, guns, and the effectiveness of the district's security practices.

Unlike other districts that have conducted undercover probes to root out drug rings on campuses, Seminole County, part of suburban Orlando, decided to take a long-term, comprehensive look at school safety and classroom-discipline techniques. So far, this type of "safety audit," as its creator has dubbed it, appears to be unique to the 55,000-student Florida district. "People in this country are tired of teachers being shot and killed and kids losing their lives at school," says Wolfgang Halbig, who conceived the operation as security director for the Seminole County schools. "We've got to get a handle on it."

During the five-month operation, Jennifer not only went to classes at the two high schools--Lyman and Lake Brantley--but also frequented dance clubs, skipped classes, and purchased illegal drugs. "It was fun," she says. "Where else can you get paid to hang out with kids and go out to clubs."

Only Halbig, district superintendent Paul Hagerty, and the county sheriff knew the identity of the undercover officer and the schools she was working. The school board signed off on the overall plan.

By the end of the operation, 33 students and adults were arrested on charges involving marijuana, LSD, and cocaine. Several students have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Most will be expelled. "This was a message to students," says Hagerty. "Keep your drugs out of school."

Jennifer didn't have a specific checklist when she started her undercover work. But using her new skills as an officer, she generally looked for signs of criminal behavior and security problems. She scanned the perimeter of the school to see if a staff member was surveying the fences and monitoring the alarms. She studied the student population for signs associated with gang activity. She kept an eye out for weapons and drugs. And she watched how teachers disciplined rowdy teenagers in the classrooms and hallways.

The insider's study revealed that neither weapons nor gang activity was a problem but that school leaders should pay closer attention to overall security, perimeter control, and drug dealing.

District officials say they chose clandestine means of scrutinizing their schools because other methods of gathering information about safety, such as surveys or in-person interviews, fail to provide a complete picture. Students and teachers, Halbig says, are likely to exaggerate their schools' assets and downplay problems. What's more, undercover operations yield more specific information than a multiple-choice questionnaire. Although surveys might suggest the extent of a drug problem at a school, undercover agents can reveal who the drug dealers and users are and where they tend to congregate.

"This school is a sieve," says Darvin Boothe, principal at Lake Brantley. "People can just walk to the street and be gone."

Boothe admits that he was amazed to learn that the blond girl he occasionally spotted in the hallway was actually a deputy sheriff. The information she uncovered, he says, will help him reassure parents that 2,900-student Lake Brantley High is safer than they might have thought. "Parents worry without any facts," he says, "and there's a tendency to use the worst-case scenario, but our school isn't the worst case."

Although some students have publicly criticized the covert operation, parents and community leaders have largely applauded the tactics as a necessary step to help prevent drug use and violence. "Some kids might think that their civil rights are being violated to have someone spying on them," says Judy Wiant, president of the Seminole County PTA. "But by being proactive, you don't let situations get out of hand."

Phyllis Nardi, Jennifer's English teacher at Lake Brantley High School, says she was surprised to learn that she had been grading papers written by a deputy sheriff. But looking back, Nardi realizes that there was something curious about the senior who appeared uninterested but got good grades. "Her skills were much better than other students'," she says. "She was a better writer and more articulate."

Teachers have generally supported the district's effort to evaluate security and drug problems. But some were less enthusiastic when they learned that they also were the subject of scrutiny.

During a class last spring at Lake Brantley, Jennifer refused to take her seat. As Boothe tells it, the teacher grabbed her arm and shook her. Jennifer filed a complaint with the principal, charging that the teacher inappropriately disciplined her--an allegation that school officials are investigating.

Gay Parker, president of the 2,400-member Seminole County Education Association, says the clandestine tactics are appropriate when the object of the investigation is safety, a law enforcer's area of expertise. But an officer, Parker says, isn't qualified to evaluate discipline in the classroom.

"It's like me going into a hospital and assessing a doctor," she asserts.

For Jennifer's protection and the integrity of the investigation, the district's 52 principals were told that an undercover officer would be attending school but not the identity of the campuses. None of the teachers knew there was an officer among them until the police raided the two high schools in May and the events made front-page news.

--Jessica Portner

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