Undercover in Schools: Educators Divided on Use of Agents

By Cindy Currence — April 25, 1984 11 min read

Across the country this spring, hundreds of high-school students have been arrested because their sale or use of illicit drugs on school grounds was observed by undercover narcotics agents posing as students.

The arrests, and the drug-abuse-prevention programs that led to them, have sparked intense debate in some communities and educators and community leaders are lining up on both sides of the issue.

Advocates of the use of undercover agents say it offers the only accurate method of gauging the extent to which drugs are used on campus and possibly the only effective method of eradicating the problem.

But opponents say the programs are “short-sighted” at best, and at worst, thwart the educational process and may violate the constitutional rights of students and teachers.

According to statistics from “Drugs and American High School Students, 1975-1983,” a study released in February by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug use among high-school seniors is common and has increased significantly since 1975 when researchers began collecting data.

Fifty-seven percent of students who graduated in 1983 reported having used marijuana, compared with only 47 percent of the class of 1975. Last year, researchers reported a “leveling and the beginning of a decline” in drug use, but added that the use of heroin and other opiates had remained virtually unchanged since 1979 and that the use of cocaine continued at “peak” levels. About 16 percent of seniors in the class of 1983 reported that they had used cocaine, while only 9 percent of seniors in 1975 said they had used the drug. (See Education Week, Feb. 15, 1984.)

Two Schools of Thought

“There definitely are two schools of thought on this issue,” said Eugene Graves, principal of the Junior High School of the Kennebunks in Maine and chairman of the education committee of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, a national coalition of grassroots parents’ groups brought together with the assistance of First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1982.

Many educators believe, Mr. Graves said, that the drug-abuse problems will be best solved with a “long-range” approach that educates young people from their earliest years that taking drugs “is not a rational and reasonable thing to do to your body.”

“Certainly, society has a right to police itself,” Mr. Graves said, but he added that the use of undercover narcotics agents in schools is a “short-range” solution.

If drug use among young people, and society in general, continues at its current rate, Mr. Graves said, a “punitive” solution to the problem would severely tax law-enforcement resources. “There simply aren’t enough undercover agents, jails, and police to deal with the problem,” he said.

The other school of thought is that the use of undercover agents is an effective method of stemming an existing drug problem in schools, according to Robert Rubel, director of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, the information and research center for three professional associations of school-security personnel.

“As a matter of course, we wouldn’t feel that you should go into this quickly,” Mr. Rubel said.

Setting up an undercover operation takes a tremendous amount of planning and cooperation between school systems and law-enforcement agencies, he explained. Such investigations are used “fairly infrequently” because of the expense of maintaining an agent in a school for several months and the complicated logistics of covert activity, he added.

“But gosh, if you’ve got no other way to get students’ attention, it seems like a pretty reasonable approach,” he said.

‘Ongoing’ Program

Getting students’ attention was one of the main reasons public-school officials in Cincinnati agreed to cooperate with city police in undercover drug investigations in several of the school system’s nine high schools.

Last month, 57 students in three Cincinnati high schools were expelled for the remainder of the school year after they were arrested and charged with selling drugs--primarily small amounts of marijuana--to undercover narcotics agents who posed as students at the schools.

Undercover agents have been used in the Cincinnati Public Schools for four years, according to Thomas W. Dixon, security chief for the school system. The program is “ongoing,” he said.

“The students are very aware of it,” Mr. Dixon said. “It has a definite psychological impact on the student body.”

At Aiken High School in Cincinnati, Roger C. Effron, the principal, said he meets with students occasionally throughout the school year to remind them that the sale and use of drugs on campus are illegal and that undercover agents are working within the school district.

Pushing Them Underground

Although undercover agents were not placed in Aiken this year, they were on campus during the 1981 and 1982 school years, Mr. Effron said.

When students know that agents are on campus, it acts as a deterrent to drug activity by letting students know that the “school system will not tolerate drugs,” Mr. Effron said.

The program “has buried drugs further and further underground,” he said. “Previously, you could come into the school and smell marijuana at different locations. If my nose tells me anything, and it’s probably pretty accurate, we have made some improvements.”

Ascertaining Involvement

School officials in the Norfolk Public Schools worked with police on an undercover operation in the city’s schools this year for reasons similar to those described in Cincinnati, according to Gene Carter, superintendent of Norfolk schools.

“We wanted to ascertain the degree of involvement with illegal substances in the school and put in place a structure that would serve to get students to think twice before they use or bring drugs into the schools,” Mr. Carter said.

The investigation lasted five months and culminated in the arrests of 76 people last December, according to Charles Grant, Norfolk’s chief of police. About 75 percent of those arrested were students in the school district’s five high schools, Mr. Grant said.

Mr. Carter said the school system and the police department are in the process of working on “appropriate follow-up” to the investigation but declined to elaborate on the plans.

Positive Results

The use of undercover narcotics agents in California high schools has increased in number and visibility in the last several years, according to Persida Drakulich, coordinator of school-health programs for the California Department of Education.

Ms. Drakulich speculated that the use of undercover agents is becoming more popular in California because the media coverage of the arrests that follow an investigation give the problem high visibility within the community and may increase support for other drug-abuse-prevention programs.

“If you arrest 150 kids for selling drugs, you can imagine how many are using drugs,” she said.

In San Diego, for example, “good things” came of a drug investigation that ended last January with 135 students in two San Diego public schools arrested and charged with “possession for sale” of drugs, said Alex Rascon, director of school-police services for the San Diego Unified School District.

Although the school board “took a very hard line” and suspended all of the students arrested, Mr. Rascon said, many of the students now are enrolled in drug-counseling programs and the school system has instituted a “complete drug-education program” for its students.

In addition, teachers and school-security personnel will receive further training in identifying drug users and detecting illegal drug activity, he said.

“We needed to wake up the community,” Mr. Rascon said. “We knew there was a problem and we needed to let the community know.”

The use of undercover narcotics agents is not new in Los Angeles public schools. Young-looking agents have posed as students in the district’s high schools for 10 years now, according to Roberta Weintraub, a member of the school board.

“It’s stopped our schools from being havens for drug pushers, which they were before this program,” Ms. Weintraub said, adding that she is “very, very much” in favor of the program.

Students Expelled

But other members of the school board have questioned the use of undercover agents on campus for several years, and early last January, for the first time since the program began, the board voted not to expel nine students at Taft High School who were arrested following a drug investigation conducted earlier this school year.

Three board members, Jackie Goldberg, Rita Walters, and Larry Gonzalez, voted not to expel the students because they were concerned about the issue of “entrapment,” Ms. Goldberg said. The students had sold only small amounts of marijuana to the undercover officers, and most had been approached by the officer, rather than the other way around, she said.

As a result of this year’s undercover investigations, 176 students in nine Los Angeles schools were arrested, 154 were considered for expulsion, and a total of 129 have been expelled, according to school officials.

The only other serious challenge to the investigations in Los Angeles schools came from the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Mary Ellen Gale, a former aclu lawyer who worked on the lawsuit in 1975. The aclu had filed the suit on behalf of students in the district, claiming that the investigations violated their constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. But the claim “didn’t get very far,” Ms. Gale said.

First Amendment Question

According to Ivan Gluckman, director of legal and legislative services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the only other challenge to the use of undercover narcotics agents in schools of which he is aware was dismissed last summer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The challenge involved two teachers at Cousino High School in Warren, Mich., who filed suit against the school district because they believed the placement of an undercover agent in their classrooms during the 1977 school year constituted a “chilling” of their constitutional right to free speech.

“We thought it was a very detrimental thing to do to the open atmosphere of teaching,” said Michael G. Gordon, who was a psychology teacher at Cousino High School at the time and now teaches at Fuhrman Junior High School in Warren.

The idea of having undercover agents in schools “taking down everything you said” would make teachers reluctant to speak freely, Mr. Gordon said, and also would inhibit the free speech of students.

“There is no way students would feel free to talk openly in class not knowing what outsiders were there,” he said.

But the appeals court found “no indication that the investigation had any tangible and concrete inhi-bitory effect on the expression of particular sociopolitical views in these classrooms.”

‘Troubling’ Arrests

Mr. Gluckman said that principals “don’t particularly object” to the use of undercover narcotics agents, especially when the result is beneficial to the school, but they do complain when police come into a school and start making arrests. “That is troubling to administrators,” he said.

But arrests can be made “discreetly” on campus, according to Gwendolyn Collier, superintendent of the Monrovia school district outside Los Angeles. This month, 15 students were arrested at Monrovia High School. The arrests were made so quietly, she said, they went unnoticed by most students and teachers.

Another objection principals raise, said Mr. Rascon in San Diego, is that they do not like being kept in the dark about undercover operations. In many schools, only the superintendent of schools is aware of the program, he said.

“No one here knew, and that’s the only way to fly,” he said. “It’s very important that we keep it a secret. I didn’t even want to know.’'

Political Reaction

Political leaders also have objected to the use of undercover agents in schools. Last month, when the South Carolina House of Representatives adopted legislation to provide funding to hire 30 narcotics agents to patrol public schools in the state, several lawmakers spoke out against the proposal. (See Education Week, April 4, 1984.)

Representative Robert Sheheen, a Democrat from Kershaw, S.C., called the plan a “semi-military idea” that would have “policemen roaming hallways and intimidating students.”

A better way of attacking the problem would be to pay for a comprehensive drug-education program, he said.

“If you want to cure the drug problem,” he said, “you’ve got to earn students’ respect. You can’t preach to them that drugs are bad. You’ve got to educate them that drugs are bad.”

Logistical Problems

Another problem with the use of undercover agents, said Mr. Rubel of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, is the ability of the agents, usually young cadets fresh from police training, to maintain their cover.

At Slidell High School in Louisiana last year, an 18-year-old deputy sheriff, posing as a student, was nearly suspended before he could finish the investigation.

Teachers had planned to suspend the student because he skipped school frequently and was thought of as a “troublemaker,” said Joe Duccaran, principal of the school. Mr. Duccaran said he prevailed upon the teachers to delay the suspension.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Undercover in Schools: Educators Divided on Use of Agents