Law Enforcement: In Widely Criticized Sting, Undercover Blonde Cop Snares Massachusetts High School Boys 4/14/06

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In a sting drawing widespread condemnation even from law enforcement and educators, among others, police in Falmouth, Massachusetts, sent a cute, blonde, young-looking cop into Falmouth High School as an undercover agent with a sob story about a dead mother, an absent father, and a need to get high to ease the pain. Her three-month charade came to an end last Friday when police arrested nine teenage boys for selling her small quantities of marijuana and ecstasy.

Four 17-year-olds were charged as adults, while four 16-year-olds and one 14-year-old were charged as minors. They are accused of providing marijuana to the narc on 31 occasions and Ecstasy once.

Falmouth police told the Boston Globe they decided on the undercover operation because of complaints from some parents that drug use was rampant at the school. According to Falmouth school superintendent Dennis Richards, police had approached the school "before the first of the year" about placing a narc in the school. "Our principal, Paul Cali, had experienced a similar situation six years ago, so he was familiar with it. I listened to Paul and the police, and I supported it," Richards told the Globe. "Drugs are a concern in most communities around the country, and it's no different here. But I believe we're dealing with a small group of students," he said.

Other area educators told the Globe they were not so sanguine about such operations. Undercover operations are -- and should be -- rare, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "It's done where there are serious concerns and they need to go deeper into the scope of the problem," he said. "I think it is done... [when] they don't have enough information. It is a decision made as a last resort."

"I don't think the community would accept that," said Paul Richards, principal of Needham High School.

"This is the kind of stuff you see in made for TV movies," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Even a former Suffolk County assistant prosecutor criticized the undercover operation, saying it was "outrageous" to use such tactics in high schools. "What strikes me as odd is if it was so prevalent, why did an undercover police officer have to dig so deep?" he asked. "As a prosecutor I wouldn't be comfortable with this. Why should she have to make up a sob story? That's something you'll have to explain to a jury."

The sting also drew criticism from Eric Sterling, a former US House counsel who helped draft harsh federal drug laws in the 1980s and who currently heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "This trust-destroying raid may well disrupt the school environment more than the marijuana use that existed in the school. Every student feels betrayed and suspicious. Every new student will enter that school under a cloud of potential distrust for several years," he wrote in his Justice and Drugs blog. "Couldn't this situation have been handled with more wisdom and compassion? If these boys had been called to a private interview in the principal's office with their parents present, don't you think that they would have been thoroughly deterred from future drug dealing, without making an arrest? The shock of being discovered, confronted with their parents present, and told of the risk of prosecution and its consequences, would be complete deterrence for most kids."

According to students interviewed by the Globe, the blonde narc worked hard to find people to score for her. She talked about drugs constantly, said sophomore James Heide, 16. "It seemed like she was trying to score from everyone."

"She would tell people that her mother was dead and that her dad was in the Navy and that she needed pot to cope," said Julia Massi, a 17-year-old senior who said she was in English class with the officer. "She made people feel bad for her. She would say 'Hey, if you see a party, give me a shout.'"

Parents of the students arrested were also unhappy with the police approach. "My kid was impressed by this pretty undercover drug officer," said one mother. "He has issues with low self-esteem, and this pretty girl gave him attention," she said. "He wanted to impress her by providing her with what she needed. The approach by the police was not justified. Drugs may be a problem at the school, but they have to change their approach."

Actually, drugs aren't that much of a problem at Falmouth High, at least relatively speaking. According to a recent student survey, 85% of students said they had not smoked marijuana in the last month, a figure roughly consistent with figures across the land. According to the latest Monitoring the Future survey, 15.2% of 10th graders and 19.8% of seniors nationwide reported smoking pot within the last month.

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Issue #431 -- 4/14/06

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