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Dean’s amateur sting at Valley school backfires

Laura Custodio, dean of Porter Middle School in the San Fernando Valley, sprang into action after hearing that an eighth-grader was selling pot to other students.

Without consulting police or parents, she asked a 12-year-old boy with a history of discipline problems to act as a decoy buyer and gave him a marked $5 bill.

“I was pretty scared,” the decoy, a seventh-grader, later testified in court. “She told me it was the right thing to do and I had to do it … and I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

The sting roiled a suburban campus better known for its academic achievement and led to a more than $1-million jury award to the seventh-grader and his family in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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The school’s principal and vice principal were transferred from the campus after the district found out about the incident and both soon retired. Custodio continues to work for the district as a teacher at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies.

Details of events on the afternoon of the alleged drug deal two years ago were pieced together from interviews, depositions and testimony in the civil case filed against the district, which ended in the summer.

Neither the students nor their parents were identified in court documents or during testimony. None of the administrators would comment.

The incident began when the seventh-grader told school officials that a student one year ahead of him had tried to sell him drugs. He was scared to go to officials because the boy was bigger and had flashed gang signs. The seventh-grader told the older boy that he would bring money to school the next day.

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He decided to tell school officials and wrote a statement about the incident, saying that the eighth-grader had showed him marijuana.

The seventh-grader had arrived at Porter Middle School the year before. He had attended San Fernando Middle School but got into trouble there and was occasionally mistaken for a gang member.

For his safety, he was moved to Porter, a middle school in affluent Granada Hills that had so few problems that it didn’t have a full-time school police officer.

The boy had discipline issues and was sent to Custodio’s office several times for, among other things, throwing water on another student and mocking an adult on campus.

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Gradually, his behavior began to improve, along with his grades. Custodio encouraged him, sometimes flashing him a thumbs-up sign when she passed him on campus.

The boy’s parents noticed a change in their son’s behavior. “Man, he’s doing good right now,” his father said in a deposition. “This is working.”

When he saw school administrators, he would shake their hands and thank them for working with his son, who said he liked Custodio because she treated him fairly.

When Custodio saw the boy’s statement about the drug dealing, she asked the boy to help. He seemed excited about the prospect, Custodio said. She then discussed the scheme with Assistant Principal Armando Mejia and Principal Joyce Edelson.

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Custodio and Mejia said Edelson told them to “go for it.” The principal later said she couldn’t remember exactly what words she used and that she had believed the administrators had exhausted all other ways of stopping the alleged dealing.

Following Custodio’s plan, the decoy went to the boys’ bathroom with a campus aide, who hid in a stall. Custodio, meanwhile, told the suspected drug dealer to go to the restroom to look for another student.

Inside, the decoy asked the suspected dealer if he could buy some pot, according to testimony. Meet me after school, the eighth-grader told him.

Custodio wasn’t satisfied and asked the aide to pull the decoy out of class again and try one more time for a deal. That effort fell apart when the suspect saw the aide.

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Custodio gave up, but the seventh-grader decided to meet the suspected dealer after school anyway and succeeded in buying two small buds of marijuana.

He gave the drugs to Custodio, who tried to speak with the suspected dealer. When the suspect saw Custodio coming, he threw something — possibly drugs — into a truck.

Administrators alerted school district police that afternoon. When investigators learned that a student had been used as a decoy, they turned the case over to the Los Angeles Police Department.

On the way home from school that day, the seventh-grader told his mother what had happened. The next day, the parents went to school — this time to confront Custodio.

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“She said she was sorry and it would never happen again,” the boy’s mother said in court.

Within a week, Custodio and the school’s assistant principal and principal were transferred off campus while police and district officials investigated.

Ramon C. Cortines, who was the district superintendent at the time, said that although he was “shocked” by the incident, he believed that Custodio had made a one-time-only mistake.

“She was held in such esteem by her co-workers.... I thought she was on a trajectory to be a principal or assistant principal,” said Cortines, who added that the scheme should have been stopped by Custodio’s supervisors.

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The Porter administrators had long tenures with the school district and with Porter in particular. Mejia had been at the campus for at least six years; Edelson for four. Custodio, who had worked for the district since 1975, had been at Porter for about six years.

Prosecutors found that Custodio violated several laws, including using a minor under the age of 14 to transport pot, but found that “the evidence is clear that it was not her intent to purchase or transport marijuana for her own … or for anyone else’s use,” according to a district attorney’s office memo. “Criminal prosecution in this matter is not appropriate.”

The suspected dealer was not charged with a crime because the evidence against him was obtained illegally. He went to San Fernando High School this summer.

The decoy’s parents moved him to other campuses, but he was frightened and began taking a knife to school. His family worried about his safety because other Porter students knew he had reported the suspected dealer.

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Today, the decoy and his sister are being home-schooled. The family wants to move out of the area but is waiting to see if the district appeals the $1-million award that would allow them to leave.

District officials are weighing whether to appeal the decision and have offered to transfer the boy to other schools. The family has declined.

Custodio, along with the school’s principal and assistant principal, said in court and in depositions that they regretted their actions and blamed them on a lack of thought, miscommunication and a strong desire to get the drugs off campus.

“I was concerned for the safety of the students,” Custodio said in testimony.

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But Alexander Calfo, an attorney for the student’s family, said the sting was a stunning lapse of judgment that put a 12-year-old boy in jeopardy.

The administrators “made horrible, horrible reckless mistakes,” he said.

jason.song@latimes.com


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