Police Chief Calls ACLU Extremely Ignorant : Suit Aims to Block School Drug ‘Stings’

Times Staff Writer

Contending that “police state” tactics have no place in the classroom, the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block further police undercover drug investigations in San Diego schools.

The suit says that undercover police seduced students to buy and sell drugs, thus police and school officials illegally contributed to the delinquency of minors. Police have arrested more than 200 students in the last two years in drug “stings” at seven San Diego high schools.

Police Chief Bill Kolender and a lawyer for the San Diego Unified School District branded the suit groundless and predicted that it would have no effect on any plans for further investigations during the coming school year.


Gregory Marshall, legal director for the San Diego ACLU, said he expects the San Diego County Superior Court to schedule a hearing on a temporary ban on undercover operations in late September or early October. The school year begins Sept. 9.

Terming ACLU lawyers “extremely ignorant,” Kolender defended police tactics in the undercover busts, saying students have a right to attend school without the constant pressure to use and traffic in drugs.

“The use of narcotics on campus is stifling the educational process, not the fact there may be a police officer on the campus,” he said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit--who include a Madison High School graduate convicted of selling marijuana to a police officer, the parent of another convicted student and an elementary-school principal--said the undercover busts jeopardize personal liberties and undermine youngsters’ faith in the justice system.

“Secret police are anathema in a free society,” Marshall said at a press conference announcing the filing of the lawsuit. “Anybody would be outraged if they learned that the co-worker at the next desk or the shortstop on the softball team turned out to be a secret police spy. Obviously, the schools, especially, are no place for secret police.”

The suit, brought by the plaintiffs as taxpayers in San Diego, seeks to block the city and school district from spending public funds on the allegedly illegal drug investigations. It contends that the stings violate students’ constitutional rights to privacy, free association and freedom from unreasonable searches.

Moreover, the lawsuit condemns the investigations as publicity gimmicks, designed to bag numerous arrests rather than snare high-level drug dealers.

“The program is not designed to deal effectively with the drug problem by identifying and capturing the people who callously deal drugs to make money,” Marshall said. “Instead (it) is intended to capture the maximum number possible of gullible, and basically innocent, kids who can be enticed by somebody they think is a friend to help their friend find a few joints.”

Kolender rejected the criticism, saying the on-campus investigations were part of a broader law enforcement campaign against all levels of the drug network.

As a measure of the stings’ effectiveness, Kolender and Christina Dyer, general counsel for the school district, noted that fewer students were arrested in investigations this spring than in the initial dragnet in early 1984.

“Each time we have a drug bust we’re finding fewer drug dealers on campus,” Dyer said. “The drug problem is insidious. It’s everywhere in our society. But we have to start somewhere.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, though, said the busts had done little to deter drug use among high school students.

“It probably stopped drugs from coming on campus, but it didn’t stop kids from going home at lunch and getting stoned,” said plaintiff Ann Seay, who graduated from Madison High School in the spring despite a conviction and three-month expulsion for selling marijuana to an undercover officer.

Seay said she questioned whether students were learning the intended lessons of the highly publicized drug busts.

“When I was back at Madison after being reinstated, in the first week I had numerous kids walk up to me and ask if I wanted to sell drugs for them,” she said.

Instead of altering students’ patterns of drug use, the investigations have served to jaundice youngsters to police and the courts and to make them suspicious of fellow students, the plaintiffs contend.

“With all the turmoil in the world, this isn’t the time to start jiving kids,” said Ernest McCray, principal of Fletcher Elementary School and one of the plaintiffs.

However, Dyer said many students support the drug busts. “We hear feedback from youngsters who are pleased to have drug dealing off campus and pleased they’re not subjected to peer pressure to use it or buy it,” she said.

ACLU lawyers acknowledge that the basis for their challenge--that the investigations are illegal because authorities break the law by inducing delinquency in minors--is untested. But they say that it may be a winning refinement of previous challenges attacking the stings as police entrapment.

Police and school officials are confident that the undercover operations will stand up to scrutiny in court.

“This will have no bearing on anything this police department does,” Kolender said. “They’re making a suit on something that’s already been adjudicated.”