L.A.'s ‘School Buy’ Drug Program: After 13 Years, Turmoil

Times Staff Writer

It seemed like a typical romance, the rangy high school football star and the new girl on campus, a drop-dead, blue-eyed blonde named Sharon Fischer.

What the player did not know, what no one at school knew, was that Sharon Fischer was also a cop.

When their alliance ended, the teen-age boy was devastated, the woman’s budding police career was scuttled and the Los Angeles Police Department’s undercover “School Buy” drug-purchasing program was pushed from the shadows.


Now, 13 years after it started as a novel effort to sweep high school campuses clean of drugs, the program has been enveloped in controversy.

The concept was simple--place young cops on Los Angeles high school campuses where, disguised as students, they would ferret out drug dealers. They would surface at the close of each semester with mass arrests that would punish the errant and stun their classmates into complying with the law.

But Sharon Fischer, the Police Department determined, broke the rules. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates fired her last month after police decided she had maintained an “improper” romantic relationship with the football player at the Granada Hills high school.

Fischer Denies Charges

Fischer, 23, denies that and maintains that she struck up a friendship with the young man to ward off threats from another student, who had manhandled her in a school hallway. She plans to take her case to court. Nevertheless, the eight arrests she made have been dropped.

Critics of the School Buy program argue that the Fischer case is yet another example of systemic troubles that have marred the operation, wounding countless students, few of them serious drug dealers.

The program’s defenders contend that it has rid campuses of blatant drug dealing, lessened the temptation for would-be users and reinforced the schools’ legitimate purpose--learning.

But the debate is less a harsh and polarized dispute than one fraught with nervous second-guessing. Both sides tread a fragile, meandering line between the right of high school students to succumb to the frailties of adolescence in privacy and the right of society to insist on lawful behavior, at least in its halls of education.

“Working undercover is not the American way,” summed up Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Eugene D. Rudolph. ". . . (But) your children have a right to a drug-free environment.”

He was a slight, intense 15-year-old with a baby-faced grin and deep brown eyes. And she was Yolanda, blessed with a body that even now, almost a year later, provokes from him a sigh of teen-age lust. They kidded around; he bought her popcorn and, when she asked, he bought her cocaine. Then police arrested him with the help of Yolanda, a 23-year-old cop.

SH Community Service

The youngster, who like other students spoke on the condition that his name not be used, pleaded guilty. A judge sentenced him to 150 hours of community service and a year of probation. School authorities sent him for one semester to a continuation school for troublesome students .

“I just tried to be something I was not. I just tried to get to know her. I thought maybe if I could get her something . . . ? A quarter of coke. No big deal, right? We were friends. We’d go to lunch out. Two weeks afterwards she asked me again. I got it for her. Again, we were just buying each other stuff. Buddy buddy. . . . That was it .

“Getting caught stopped me. It slowed me down. I guess it was all for the better, a blessing in disguise. I don’t want to ever get in trouble again. Some people like to get in trouble, be a big guy. I never got in trouble before. Now, I know.

“My family, they are real clean people. All of a sudden--Boom. It shook the whole family.”

He sees himself a few years hence having brushed aside this trouble, working in business or “real estate and stuff.”

“I like computers,” he says shyly, as if expecting ridicule.

When the School Buy program began, the rebellious ‘60s had set the stage for rampant drug use at Los Angeles high schools. Teachers remember overdoses, and near overdoses, on campus. Los Angeles Police Cmdr. William D. Booth recalls students operating “a little mini-market there of contraband,” right outside classroom doors.

“To get into the stream of trafficking,” Booth said, “whether it is on the high school level or a major traffic level, one of the best ways to do it is to get somebody in a position where they can watch very carefully and not be recognized as a police officer.”

So the School Buy program was born. Its parameters have not markedly changed in the years since.

Essentially, young officers are selected, most often while they are still in the Police Academy, and after graduation they attend a three-week training session covering tactical and legal maneuvers for undercover work.

After training, they enroll in high schools under assumed names. About 10 high schools are targeted each semester. The school principals are the only ones told that an operative is on campus, and even they are not told the officer’s identity. The officers are under orders to arrest drug sellers, not drug users.

Work Independently

The undercover officers are unarmed. They work independently while at school, but stay in daily touch with supervisors during off-campus hours.

Until March, when Fischer was fired, no arrests had been compromised because of undercover tactics in the program’s 13-year history, Booth said.

Occasionally, officers have been pulled off campus when their real identity surfaced. And there have been two acts of violence--a woman officer was sexually assaulted by dealers and a male officer was robbed. But overall, Booth said, there have been few problems.

“It’s not as dangerous as a lot of other police work,” he said.

Since the program began, several cities across California have followed suit.

Claremont Police Chief Dexter Atkinson, who has run two undercover drug programs at Claremont High School, said community support for such efforts has grown. “Any community that says they don’t have a drug problem is kidding themselves,” he said.

But while acceptance has grown, debate persists over the programs’ effectiveness.

Police officials in Los Angeles and San Diego point to their arrest statistics as evidence that School Buy programs lessen on-campus dealing. Generally, departments have found that as the programs age, fewer arrests are made--evidence, they say, that overt sales have ceased.

‘Dealing Less Frequent’

“Dealing on campus is less frequent and far less blatant than it has been in the past,” said LAPD’s Booth. “The number of arrests for the last several operations has been below 200, and years back a few of them crept over 300.”

Sidney A. Thompson, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, agrees that the program has had an effect on drug sales, albeit a limited one.

“I’d like to tell you that in all of the high schools it is controlled,” he said, “but that’s not true. We have cut down the blatant use.”

But others suggest that lower arrest numbers simply reflect a growing sophistication on the part of serious drug dealers who shield their exchanges from undercover officers. Some insist that the sellers have just moved off-campus.

But even that, proponents argue, is a victory because it keeps susceptible students from tripping over drug deals.

“A lot of kids get drawn into this because it’s so prevalent on school grounds,” said San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara, who supports the concept of undercover campus operations. “But they wouldn’t go to other locations (to buy drugs).”

Called Short-Lived

But even some supporters say that, given the constant turnover of students at any one school, the program’s effect is short-lived.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, conducted an undercover school program years ago. The program was canceled after the department decided it was too big a drain on the narcotics division.

“For the benefit, we didn’t feel that it was that viable,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Rudolph. “It’s a Band-Aid effect. It may have an impact for a month or two but then it (drug selling) slowly starts coming back.”

He is 16 years old and calm about his life’s turns. In December, at school, he met Latrice and sold her $20 worth of marijuana. She was a cop. After his arrest, he spent several days in Juvenile Hall, was placed on probation and ordered to spend weekends in a work program. The school district sent him to continuation school.

“Latrice was a short, nice young lady, attractive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have messed around. I told her yeah, I’d give her some. Just one time. She asked me again and I said no.”

He had sold drugs before. And he considers his arrest eminently fair.

“You do it on your own. They don’t force you. I felt she was doing her job--and the whole purpose is to find people to buy. I felt I was stupid for doing it. I blame myself more than her. ‘To serve and protect , ' you know . They’re just trying to get it off the streets.

“I messed up. I learned my lesson. The best way is to keep away from it. . I had a lot of bad influences at that school, too. I’m away from all that. The judge told me if I ever did it again--four years.”

The School Buy operatives, inexperienced officers scrambling for recognition in their early years on the force, find themselves thrust into the demanding assignment of working covertly with under-age students.

The police hierarchy calls it a necessity. The program’s critics say it is courting disaster.

The department’s three-week training session for undercover recruits is far shorter than that of other departments with programs modeled on the School Buy operation.

San Diego police, for example, have a two-month training program. The Claremont department put its lone undercover officer through a three-month training period, then sent him to the Los Angeles department’s three-week program.

Booth declined to discuss specific training methods, saying that might make it easier for dealers to spot operatives. He also declined to permit former School Buy officers to discuss the program.

But he defended the department’s training as comprehensive. And he bristles at suggestions that the officers could be, by virtue of their inexperience, ill-prepared for situations that develop during undercover work.

Must Look Young

“The physical requirement is that the officer look young enough that he can pass as a student,” he said. “So that means that nobody is going to be very long out of the academy. Mother Nature draws the line.

“An officer of the same age handles family disputes, they handle bank robberies, they handle violent gang situations.”

But San Jose’s Chief McNamara--who runs drug-buy programs near, but not inside, schools--expressed concern at the undercover use of brand-new officers.

“Generally, we want our officers to have a couple of years of experience,” McNamara said. “Obviously that’s difficult. We feel we have to have confidence in the officer’s maturity, ability and experience.”

The less experienced the officer, critics suggest, the greater the chance that something could go wrong.

“You have someone who has something to prove,” said Greg Marshall, legal director of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to halt the San Diego Police Department’s undercover drug-buying program.

“They’re brand-new and selected for some high-profile operation. Their whole job as a police officer is that operation.”

Encouraged to Drop Out

Booth says undercover officers who feel they are in over their heads are encouraged to drop out of the program--rather than endanger themselves or cut corners in their investigation--without any adverse effects on their career.

But on the street, rookie officers consider quitting such an assignment akin to putting handcuffs on their career, fired officer Fischer said. Her supervisors offered to let her quit the School Buy program after she was assaulted in the school hallway, but she refused.

“You don’t often get a chance to go undercover,” she said. “When you do, you’ve got to take it, you’ve got to finish it if you want to have any aspirations of becoming higher than a . . . patrol officer.”

In each mass arrest, some high-profile student drug dealers are arrested, sent through the juvenile justice system and punished by the school district. And, often, adults too are snared in the roundups.

But most youngsters are arrested for selling small amounts of drugs. Defense attorneys and other School Buy critics maintain that far from being hard-core drug dealers, many have merely given in to an adolescent whim--stupid or naive, perhaps, but hardly threatening to society.

ACLU Enters Case

Joan Howarth, a Los Angeles ACLU attorney, recently represented a developmentally disabled boy arrested after he sold $9 worth of marijuana to a young woman officer. Only after the ACLU intervened was the boy allowed to remain in his special education classes.

The undercover police officer “was the first woman to pay any attention to him,” Howarth said. “He was unsophisticated. It was all so crazy.”

Deputy Los Angeles County Public Defender Anna Roberts has represented an assortment of School Buy program defendants and contends that most are naive youngsters.

“Some of these kids are dealing drugs,” she said. “They also snare kids who are not into that but who want to be liked and are seduced--not in a sexual sense, but they want to be ‘in.’ ” The police, and their defenders, argue in response that the arrestees are by no means unsophisticated innocents.

“No,” said LAPD’s Booth, bluntly. “We do not entrap students.”

Fairfax High School Principal Warren Steinberg, who supports the School Buy program despite some reservations, said those arrested during two operations there were “legitimate users. They weren’t pressured into doing it.”

Judicial Ruling Cited

Legal efforts to prove otherwise have met a wall of judicial opposition. The ACLU’s early challenge to the School Buy program was thwarted in 1980 when a Superior Court judge held that the benefits of catching drug dealers outweighed the risks of violating student rights.

Even in individual cases, attorneys find it difficult to defend student buyers. A few have successfully argued that their clients were entrapped, or were not actual drug sellers but merely agents for the buyers--that is, the police.

But Alan H. Simon, chief of the Public Defenders’ Juvenile Services Division, said such victories are few and far between.

“We can’t have a jury trial in juvenile court,” he said, “and that puts us at a distinct disadvantage. The community is more apt to buy it than the judges.”

He was a muscled high school junior, thrown by a computer’s whim into a third period wood shop class with Julie, a blonde, green-eyed student who pestered him for drugs--on campus, at the mall, wherever she saw him. She asked him for drugs at least 18 times during a two-month period, he said.

“I said, ‘I don’t sell.’ I kept telling her, ‘Just leave me alone!’ It got to the point where every time I’d see her , I’d turn the other way.

“She was hounding me day after day. I got tired of it and thought that was the only way out. I was telling my friends, and they said, ‘You might as well get her off your back.’ I didn’t want to get her in trouble . . . I didn’t want to go to the teachers and the principal.”

So he sold her $30 worth of marijuana, and she left him alone. Later, when he was arrested, police officer Julie told him, “Maybe now you’ll get your life together.”

Nine months later, now a continuation school student, his voice cracks in anger.

“I shouldn’t have had to go through that,” he said. “I was doing good in school. It just messed it all up. I wanted to go to college to study business . . . Now, I’m not too sure. It’s going to hang around me. I don’t want people thinking I’m a drug dealer! I was disgraced.

“They didn’t really get a lot of the drug dealers. Most of the drug dealers are still there. Most drug dealers know the narcs . . . In your neighborhood, you know who the drug dealers are. They have a $100,000 car parked in front of the $30,000 house they rent. All they are getting is the small people.

“I don’t trust policemen. I didn’t think they did it like that.”

For many students, opponents argue, the punishment for their actions far outweighs the severity of their offense.

Although most arrested are sentenced to probation, authorities say, some serve time in juvenile facilities. In addition, most students arrested on drug-selling charges are sent to continuation schools before their guilt or innocence is determined in court. They may later be permitted to attend another regular school, but rarely are they allowed to return to the campus of their arrest.

More important, critics and many proponents fear a subtle but wide-ranging impact, touching even those students not involved with drugs: the loss of trust in adults and police that can develop when students discover a confidante was actually a police officer.

“There are two kinds of effects, one negative and one positive,” said Fairfax Principal Steinberg. “The negative is that the kids on campus feel that we’ve not been honest with them by allowing this to occur; I think there’s some justification for that.

“On the other hand, I think we also have to say if we don’t do everything possible to get kids off drugs, we’re doing them a disservice.”

Deputy Supt. Thompson said the school district supports the program because damage to a youngster’s psyche is less traumatic than involvement with drugs.

“In the best of worlds,” he said, “if this calls attention to a problem which a parent has a chance of correcting, then you might say it’s for the best.”

But in the years since the Los Angeles School Buy program began, school officials and police say no one has studied the long-term impact on the students. No one really knows what has happened to them.

The students will know, years hence. Perhaps they will react like the 17-year-old Valley boy who used the momentum of his arrest to break away from a circle of drug-dealing friends. Dealers, he says now, with a trace of a sneer, are “wimps.” He is “sure” that he won’t rejoin their ranks.

Or they could side with the 17-year-old Central Los Angeles boy, who, with flirtatious charm, asserts that he will never again sell drugs. Well, perhaps not. “It all depends on what kind of girl she was,” he says with a grin. “It all depends.”

Or they could fight the battle raging inside the Wilshire District boy, whose heart tells him to follow his father into the family business--and whose wallet tells him to succumb to the lure of selling dope.

“See, the money comes fast when you sell drugs,” he says. “I got a friend who gets paid $200 to work a week. I could sit in the street and make four, five hundred. The money keeps calling you. More. More. More.

“The money keeps calling you. The money keeps calling you. That’s the problem.”