‘Safety Audit’ Takes Officer Under Cover

By Jessica Portner — August 06, 1997 7 min read

‘A Sieve’

Department stores employ phony shoppers to test their sales associates’ customer-relations skills. Automobile companies hire independent auditors to inspect their products for reliability.

Now, a district in Florida has applied clandestine tactics to gauge the safety of its schools. From last January to May, the Seminole County district deployed an undercover police officer in two high schools to gather information on drugs, gangs, guns, and overall security.

Unlike other districts that have conducted undercover probes to root out drug rings on campuses, Seminole County 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 suburban Florida district.

“People in this country are tired of teachers being shot and killed and kids losing their lives at school. We’ve got to get a handle on it,” Wolfgang W. Halbig, the security director for the Seminole County schools, told school security chiefs who came here last month for the National School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers’ conference.

During the five-month operation, a 23-year-old deputy sheriff for Seminole County impersonated a senior in order to get a student’s-eye view of campus security. Jennifer, whose last name was withheld for security reasons, registered, went to class, and did her homework. And as part of her cover as a troubled teenager, she also went to dance clubs, skipped classes, and purchased illegal drugs.

Only Mr. Halbig, who initiated the operation, Superintendent Paul J. Hagerty, and the county sheriff knew that an undercover officer was working in the schools and the officer’s identity. The school board signed off on the action.

All the secrecy, however, has produced some unease among teachers who learned that they, too, were under observation.

By the end of the officer’s masquerade in the 55,000-student district, 33 students and adults were arrested on drug charges involving more than $1,000 worth of marijuana, LSD, and cocaine, the sheriff’s office said. Several students have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Most are expected to be expelled by the school board this month.

“This was a message to students: Keep your drugs out of school,” said Mr. Hagerty, who authorized the operation in the affluent district that borders Orlando.

Although Seminole County has a lower crime rate than its urban neighbor, drug-related crimes have been a persistent problem, according to authorities.

But beyond gathering details on drug use at school, the audit also disclosed weak spots in the schools’ security plans. Darvin Boothe, the principal of Lake Brantley High School, one of the schools scrutinized, intends to post a security officer in a wooded area that borders the parking lot because Jennifer easily slipped through this unpatrolled part of the campus during school hours.

Jennifer didn’t have a specific checklist when she started her undercover job. But using her new skills as an officer, she generally looked for signs of criminal behavior or 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, such as graffiti, characteristic clothing, or groups of students trying to intimidate other students. She kept her eye out for weapons, too.

On her way to class, the police officer speculated about how a stranger might infiltrate the crowd of students moving through the buildings.

And though it has offended some teachers to discover this, Jennifer also watched how they disciplined rowdy teenagers in the classroom and if teachers entered the hallways between classes to monitor student behavior.

The insider’s study revealed that neither weapons nor gang activity was a problem, but that overall security, perimeter control, discipline in the classroom, and drug dealing should be of some concern to school leaders.

District officials said they chose clandestine means of scrutinizing their schools because other methods of gathering information about safety, such as surveys or in-person interviews, often fail to paint a complete picture. Students and teachers are likely to exaggerate their schools’ assets and downplay problems, Mr. Halbig said.

Undercover operations also tend to yield more specific information than can be gleaned from a multiple-choice questionnaire, he added. While surveys can suggest the extent of a drug problem at a school, for instance, undercover agents can reveal who the drug dealers and users are and where they tend to congregate.

‘A Sieve’

Trekking through the back lot of his school one recent afternoon, Mr. Boothe pointed to a sandy patch of grass across from a softball field strewn with cigarette butts. He said the area, revealed in the audit as an illegal drug-trafficking spot, will be locked this fall, except during games.

“This school is a sieve,” the Lake Brantley High principal acknowledged. “People can just walk to the street and be gone.”

Sneaking off campus was an issue at the other school Jennifer attended as well. At Lyman High School, the undercover officer said, she could cut class at 1:15 p.m. every day without being caught because the school security officer’s schedule was so predictable.

Mr. Boothe admitted that he was amazed when he learned that the blond girl he occasionally spotted in the hallway was actually a deputy sheriff.

But the principal said that the information she uncovered will help him reassure parents that 2,900-student Lake Brantley High is safer than they might have thought.

Although 17 students were arrested at Lake Brantley as a result of the undercover operation, no weapons were found, and no gang activity was evident, the sheriff’s office reported. “Parents worry without any facts, and there’s a tendency to use the worst-case scenario, but our school isn’t the worst case,” Mr. Boothe said.

While some students have publicly criticized the school for its covert approach, 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, but by being proactive, you don’t let situations get out of hand,” said Judy Wiant, the president of the Seminole County district’s PTA.

Teachers Wary

Teachers generally support the district’s effort to evaluate security breaches and drug problems. But some were less enthusiastic when they discovered they were also the subject of scrutiny.

In addition to tracking illegal activity, Jennifer found problems with how one teacher disciplined her students.

As part of her cover as a troublemaker, Jennifer defied a teacher’s request one day last spring to take her seat during a class at Lake Brantley High.

By Mr. Boothe’s account of Jennifer’s allegations, the teacher grabbed her on the arm and shook her. Jennifer filed a complaint with the principal, charging that the teacher inappropriately disciplined her--an allegation school officials are investigating.

Gay Parker, the president of the 2,400-member Seminole County Education Association, the district’s largest teachers’ union, said that clandestine tactics are appropriate when the object of the investigation is safety, a law enforcer’s area of expertise.

But Ms. Parker said an officer isn’t qualified to evaluate discipline in the classroom. “It’s like me going into a hospital and assessing a doctor,” she contended.

For Jennifer’s protection and the integrity of the investigation, the district’s 52 principals were told only 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.

‘Wouldn’t Fly’

Under states’ laws, police have the authority to conduct undercover operations in schools when they suspect any illegal activity, according to education law experts.

Many districts have exercised this authority to conduct surveillance aimed at eradicating drug activity on campus. Many of these operations, such as ones in California, Hawaii, and Texas, were in response to a heightened concern about drug-related crimes.

But many school security officials say a broader “safety audit” that includes monitoring teachers’ disciplinary procedures would be harder to sell to school leaders.

“It wouldn’t play well in my community,” Dennis K. Lewis, the director of public safety for the Springfield, Mo., schools, said at the conference here. “The covert atmosphere would kill it.”

Many of the more than 200 security directors gathered in Orlando argued that administrators might be reluctant to conduct a safety investigation of the kind that Seminole County undertook because they would then be bound to correct any problems that surfaced.

“The reasoning is, if I don’t know about it, I’m not liable. If I do know, I’ll have to deal with it,” one security director said.

Other security directors said it would be difficult to find trained officers who looked young enough to disguise themselves as high school students.

But a few school safety officials said they might consider a safety audit, if only to help them direct their scant resources more wisely.

“You can never have enough information to base sound decisions on,” said John J. McLees, the security director of the 215,000-student Philadelphia district.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week