Paranoia the Legacy of School Drug Busts : Atmosphere of Suspicion Prevails a Year After Raids Netted 142 Student Arrests

Times Staff Writer

This school year, when Keith looked at a new classmate, he thought he saw a narc.

"There's this guy in my second-period class--a new guy named Nick," explained Keith, a 17-year-old senior at Patrick Henry High School. "On the second day of school, he asked me where he could get some stuff . . . some weed.

"I thought, 'Whoa, wait a minute!' . . . I was tripping! I was going, 'Whoa, no way!' "

They started to hang out together, but Keith made sure it was a drug-free friendship, just to be safe. It was only after Keith visited Nick after school one day, saw his home and met his parents that he was certain his new friend wasn't really an undercover narcotics officer. "That's when I knew he was cool."

This hasn't been a good year to be the new guy or girl in a San Diego high school, especially for those trying to buy illegal drugs.

Paranoia Remains

One year after San Diego police executed one of the largest and most controversial narcotics raids in the department's history--arresting 63 Patrick Henry High students and four from other schools on Jan. 5, 1984, who had allegedly sold drugs to an undercover officer posing as a student--a thick residue of paranoia remains at San Diego high school campuses.

The atmosphere of suspicion that first took hold in the Patrick Henry operation was intensified by subsequent drug stings at Hoover, Morse and Mira Mesa high schools.

All told, 142 students were arrested. The vast majority of those were convicted (mostly in Juvenile Court), placed in counseling and work programs, and expelled from school. Most of those who had reached their 18th birthdays were fined, placed on probation and work programs. One spent 42 days in jail.

Many of the Patrick Henry and Hoover students have completed their expulsion periods and are back in school, while many of the Morse and Mira Mesa students will return to school Monday, the start of the second semester.

Police and school officials hailed the dragnets as major successes, while the American Civil Liberties Union, defense attorneys and some parents said undercover officers had entrapped minors, encouraging them to break the law. Both sides agreed that an air of paranoia would result--Who's the narc in your homeroom?--but authorities reasoned that it is a good thing if it serves to slow down the use and marketing of illegal drugs on high school campuses.

Although a mood of suspicion is obvious, it is not apparent whether campus drug use and dealing are on the decline. Many students say drugs are as widespread as ever but have moved deeper underground.

To maintain the paranoia, authorities refuse to say whether undercover narcotics officers are still operating on campuses.

"If we had an ongoing operation, I wouldn't say anything because I wouldn't want to compromise it," said Lt. Skip DiCerchio of the inter-agency Narcotics Task Force. "And even if we didn't, I want the paranoia to remain so the drugs will stay off campus."

Similarly, schools Supt. Thomas Payzant has said that students and parents should not rule out the possibility of other undercover officers at district schools, including the schools targeted last year.

That strategy seems to working. Interviews with several Patrick Henry High students on the day before winter break revealed a strong undercurrent of suspicion. Many said they are convinced that an undercover officer--or perhaps two--is enrolled at the school. A senior named Mike pointed out a lanky boy with stringy blond hair and a flapping shirttail walking across the blacktop. "There's one," Mike said. "That skinny guy."

Prevalent Attitudes

Similar attitudes are prevalent at other high schools, according to school officials and law enforcement authorities

"There is an element of fear that they're going to be busted if they use drugs, and that's fine," said Jim Vlassis, principal of Mira Mesa High. "I wouldn't be surprised if they had an undercover agent here now. I hope there is one."

Sgt. Al Beckett of the police-school task force said he knew of an instance in which a legitimate transfer student was accused of being an undercover officer by classmates. The harassment became so severe that the girl had to transfer to another school, Beckett said.

While authorities were pleased with the drug operations, they are also quick to emphasize that drug abuse is still commonplace.

"I think the bust had a tremendously positive effect on the campus," said Henry Lawrence, principal at Patrick Henry High. "We know that youngsters are still involved in drugs; that's a community-wide problem.

"And I am sure some of these same youngsters (arrested last year) are still involved. But on the campus, we've felt some real change. There just isn't the kind of brazenness there was last year."

No Impact at Junior Highs

Among junior high schoolers--the age at which many young people start using narcotics--the effect of the drug stings has been nil, Beckett said. "Students in junior high are totally aware that a 21-year-old police officer could not possibly appear to be a 14-year-old ninth-grader," he said.

Several Patrick Henry students--some who claimed personal involvement in the drug business and others who said they were familiar merely through friends--said drug sales on school grounds have decreased slightly, while others said dealers are as active as ever, but less obvious. But most agreed that the amount of drug use by high schoolers has changed very little, if at all.

"For instance, in my first-period class, there's the smell of pot. I mean, I can smell it on people," said senior Jon Stamatopoulos, the student body president. "So I know drugs are there because, heck, I can smell the stuff.

"I have a mutual understanding with my friends. I don't do it, but if they want to do it, it's fine . . . It's not everywhere, it's not as prominent, but it's still there."

The drug sellers and buyers are perhaps less brazen, but that may only mean that the dealing has gone deeper underground. New students are not readily trusted, but old acquaintances are not forgotten.

The bell rang and the quad filled with students. Keith was asked how quickly he could purchase some marijuana.

"In two minutes," he said.

Not that Keith would want to buy any narcotics.

"I don't do drugs anymore . . . Well, I do it occasionally. But I like drinking."

Keith figures he has outgrown his drug abuse phase. Four years ago, back at Lewis Junior High School, Keith was one of about 10 student council officers who decided to experiment with some pills that were brought to school by the student body president.

They thought the pills were Quaaludes, a depressant, but they were really something else. Whatever they were, Keith swallowed a few, became physically ill and nearly passed out. He was hurried to a hospital, where doctors induced vomiting.

Five-Day Suspension

After his recovery, Keith was suspended from school for five days, as were the other student officers. The girl who provided the pills was suspended and transferred to another school.

Keith's mother, who requested anonymity, remembered she "was scared to death" when she heard about her son's condition. Keith is prone to exaggeration, but the story about the bogus Quaaludes and his trip to the hospital is all true, she said.

Like many Patrick Henry students, Keith does not have fond memories of "Shelly Rogoff," whose picture can be found amid the rest of the junior class on the top of Page 205 in "Encounter 16," the 1984 Patrick Henry yearbook. "Shelly Rogoff" was in fact Police Officer Shelly Zimmerman, a tomboyish, young-looking 24, who enrolled in Patrick Henry in the fall of 1983 as a transfer student from Ohio. She made friends easily and seemed to have two passions: the Cleveland Browns football team and drugs.

She took to hanging out in the campus smoking area with the "rockers." Typically long-haired or punk, the rockers as a group are so renowned for their drug use that they have another nickname: "stoners."

Keith said Shelly approached him for drugs. "She was in my first-period class," Keith recalled. "I told her who to get it from . . . My friends got busted."

Keith and Mike agreed that Officer Zimmerman missed many dealers at Patrick Henry.

"Everybody says they were so smart that they didn't sell to her," said Mike. "Not me. If she had asked me, I would have said yes, sure.

"I consider myself lucky."

Testimony in court and school disciplinary hearings showed that Zimmerman often snared two students through one purchase. For example, she would ask one student to help her get drugs and provide cash. Then that student would approach another to make the purchase. Such methods gave rise to the criticism that undercover officers were encouraging teen-agers to break the law.

"It's a serious offense for an adult to solicit a minor to commit a felony," stressed lawyer Mike McGlinn, who represented several students. "If you (as an adult) tried to buy drugs from these kids, the law would hammer you worse than the seller." The rationale behind those laws is to protect juveniles from adults who would lead them astray, McGlinn said. But in this case, the adults happened to be police officers, and they were able to get away with it, he said.

Sometimes, the work of undercover officers resulted in poignant tales.

Patrick Henry students say that the undercover officer befriended a girl named Allison who soon came to think of "Shelly Rogoff" as her best friend. Allison introduced Zimmerman to several friends who were able to provide drugs. And along with all the others, Allison was arrested.

Crush on Undercover Officer

W. Allen Williams, former head of the Juvenile Court office of Defenders Inc., which represented 63 students, told of a 16-year-old boy who became smitten with the female undercover officer at Hoover High, an attractive blonde who went by the name Kelly Williams. The boy provided her with PCP and amphetamine look-alikes.

The boy's IQ was so low that he is considered borderline retarded, Williams said. "He really wanted a girlfriend, and the effort this kid expended to find drugs for this girl he thought was real pretty is just stupendous."

While defense attorneys and some parents were critical of police techniques, they also suggest that the majority of the students implicated in the drug operations may benefit in the long run. Many had serious drug and family problems, and perhaps benefited from the trauma of the experience and court-ordered counseling programs, they said. There have been some repeat offenders, but many are now leading more purposeful lives.

Steve is one such student. He was arrested last year for selling two $10 bags of marijuana to Zimmerman. He was among those who say they merely procured narcotics from a dealer and did not make money in the transaction. She had bugged him about getting her drugs before class and during lunch almost daily for several weeks before he delivered, Steve said. "She was a real nuisance."

Steve was arrested on the morning of Jan. 5, 1984, and released to his mother in the early afternoon. His mother then returned to work, leaving Steve alone at home. Then a friend from Patrick Henry--one who wasn't arrested--came over to talk about the day's excitement. And on the same day of his arrest, Steve and his friend got high.

"So we're sitting there smoking, and I'm thinking, this is really stupid," Steve recalled.

The conversation, he said, went something like this:

Steve: "What are we doing this for?"

"Just to have fun."

Steve: "But couldn't we have fun without doing this?"

The friend: "Yeah . . . I guess we're doing it because it's wrong."

That made sense to Steve, and that's why he believes legalization would make marijuana go out of style. "If it's socially unacceptable, it makes people want to do it even more."

Steve was convicted in Juvenile Court, placed on probation and required to pay $350 in court costs. Like many students, he was able to keep up with his class through an independent study program, and is now back at Patrick Henry for his senior year.

He is convinced that the majority of students who were arrested have not changed their ways. The true dealers are still dealing, he said, and those who merely procured the drugs are "still using it pretty heavily."

But on a personal level, Steve said, the experience has changed his attitudes about drugs. During his sophomore and junior years, he said, he smoked marijuana about three times a week. After the day of his arrest, he stopped using it for five months, and now he uses it only occasionally.

"I'm still around it a lot," he said. "It just depends on the situation. There's times I will and times I won't."

Steve said one reason he has cut down is that he has decided upon a career. He wants to be a commercial pilot.

On the day before winter break, Keith didn't have a class during third period, so, pass in hand, he killed time in the hall and contemplated high school life.

"There are basically three groups," he said. "The soshes, the rockers and the wanna-bes."

The "soshes" are the college-bound social elite--the athletes, the cheerleaders, the student government types and their friends. Keith ran with that crowd back in junior high, before his trip to the hospital.

The rockers, as Keith tells it, might be considered a rabble without a cause. While some might be good students, they generally don't care too much about school and have rejected the values of the "soshes." These days, Keith seems to identify more with this group.

The "wanna-bes" fit somewhere in between.

"They maybe want to be soshes or they want to be rockers. They're, like, faking it," Keith says. "They're not as popular as they want to be. They're, like, trenders. They follow people; they're copycatters."

Drug use may be most prevalent among the "rockers," but it is common in all groups, students and authorities agree.

One student body officer at Patrick Henry giggled when she was asked why she seemed to know so much about the drug use among students. "Oh, me and my friends, we do our share," she said with bright smile.

Partial Eradication

Law enforcement and school officials say it is unrealistic to expect that undercover officers--or the fear of undercover officers--will eradicate narcotics from the teen-age life style.

But a review of the results from the operations at Patrick Henry, Hoover, Morse and Mira Mesa high schools indicates some positive impact, they suggested.

The Patrick Henry and Hoover operations ran simultaneously. The Patrick Henry operation resulted in the arrests of 63 Patrick Henry students and 4 from other schools who provided drugs. The Hoover sting netted 41 students and 9 non-students.

Of the 108 students arrested in those stings, 105 were expelled for the remainder of the school year.

The following semester, by comparison, the sting at Morse resulted in 28 arrests, and at Mira Mesa, only 6.

Moreover, only 18 expulsions resulted from the 34 Morse and Mira Mesa arrests.

Several explanations are offered for the contrasting figures. Perhaps drug dealing was simply more intensive at Patrick Henry and Hoover. Perhaps the undercover officers at Morse and Mira Mesa were not as effective.

But the most common explanation authorities give was that students were becoming wary. The publicity of the Patrick Henry and Hoover busts placed a chill on the drug dealing, they say.

But there were also indications that students were more clever in their dealings with undercover cops.

Christina Dyer, school district attorney, attributed the decrease in the expulsion rates to "weaker evidence" in the Morse and Mira Mesa cases. For example, students would take the money from the officer and promise to provide narcotics, but then fail to deliver.

'Kids Getting Savvy'

"Kids were really getting savvy. They were a lot more hesitant to interact with a new person," Dyer said. Some students "were maybe even playing games" with the undercover officers at Morse and Mira Mesa, she said.

Among the students, the question doesn't seem to be whether police will swoop down on a campus to arrest more students who sold drugs to undercover officers, but when. And which school?

Patrick Henry's student officers hope it happens somewhere else. The school suffered more bad publicity than the four other schools because the drug bust there was the first and largest.

"I don't think we're any worse than any other schools," said Eric Seely, 16, the junior class president. "My girlfriend's mom is a secretary at Hoover, and you should hear what she says about the drugs over there."

They talked about the rumors that undercover cops are operating again on campus. Stamatopoulos, the student body president, doesn't believe it.

"Naah, it's too soon," he said. "There are other schools to get first."

Back out on the quad, Keith had another prediction. "I know there's at least one or two on campus. And they're both boys this time," he declared. "I know there's going to be another bust. Definitely."

If it happens, Keith won't be around to see it. On Monday he is starting classes at Garfield Independent Learning Center, an alternative school that provides instruction tailored to individual needs. Keith's academic problems are such that he might have trouble graduating, his mother said.

A few days earlier, Keith had talked about his impending transfer. "My mom, she knows I'm bad," he said, grinning. "She thinks I'll straighten my act out if I go to another school."

He paused, and the smile disappeared.

"I mean, I'm not really bad," he said. "I'm just a normal kid."

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