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The Covert History of Narcs in High Schools

In reality, those seemingly harmless schoolyard rumors stem from a complex — and oftentimes deceitful — practice employed by police departments across the U.S.

In high school, rumors spread like wildfire, and in almost every class, suspicions inevitably arise about the presence of a narc. The person in question is usually a young man who’s significantly larger than his fellow classmates. He’s probably capable of growing at least some facial hair, and he most likely transferred from another school, meaning he never had the chance to make many friends.

For example: The Rock was apparently believed to be a narc in high school, since he stood 6-foot-4, weighed 215 pounds and sported a dark mustache. In other words, he was the perfect caricature of a narc in everyone’s mind.

Besides persisting as a specter within high school folklore, several versions of the narc have been co-opted by pop culture. In 1988, for instance, an ultra-violent arcade game named Narc was released to the public. Under firm orders from the Narcotics Opposition chairman, players were tasked with shooting and arresting addicts, dealers and organized crime kingpins.

More recently, in 2012, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum played more contemporary versions of the narc in 21 Jump Street.

But while narcs have mostly become affiliated with silly high school mythology, the idea that undercover cops are hidden among classrooms across the U.S. is a very real phenomenon — and a controversial one at that.

Sergeant Bob Alaniz of the Los Angeles Police Museum tells me that the first official use of narcs in high schools was initiated by the LAPD, headed by police chief Edward Davis, and the L.A. Unified School District in 1974. It was called the undercover “school buy” program, and it was established in response to large-scale drug use in the 1960s. “The goal was to prevent the use and sale of narcotics on or near school campuses and to reduce the use of drugs by students,” Alaniz explains. “The officers chosen for the program were young-appearing officers who were carefully screened by members of the Juvenile Narcotics Section.”

Looking the part is only half of the job, though. As the Seattle Times reported in 2007, these undercover officers also have to come up with personas that high schoolers can relate to. For instance, the covert cop they spoke with played “a long-haired skateboarder with a contempt for authority and an appetite for drugs.”

Generally speaking, Alaniz believes that the LAPD “school buy” program was effective. “It was because of the ‘school buy’ program that DARE was created as a way to help kids understand the dangers involved in drug use and abuse,” he says. “The program was successful and spread internationally.” (That’s only half right, though, as DARE was massively ineffective.)

To that end, in 1999, the LAPD released a press release boasting about the narc-related arrests they made during that year and the progress they had made since the program was put into place:

“Beginning January 4, 1999, and ending June 2, 1999, the officers made 225 purchases from 187 dealers. A systematic effort to apprehend these dealers began April 19, 1999, and will continue until all are in custody. This present operation, as with those in the past, confirmed that a variety of drugs are still available on our high school campuses. The drugs purchased and confiscated during this program included marijuana, cocaine and LSD.

“The School Buy Program established in 1974 has again proven to be the most effective method to combat the sales of drugs on and around the city’s high school campuses. Most of the drug dealers arrested that were freely operating in the selected high schools would not have been discovered during any other type of police investigation. The student dealers arrested felt secure that they were dealing only to other students, while the adults taken into custody thought that by limiting their clientele to high school age youth, they could avoid detection and arrest.”

However, not everyone was a fan of undercover cops infiltrating high schools. “The ACLU tried to stop the program, because it was viewed as an infringement on student rights to have an undercover officer on campus,” Alaniz says. More specifically, in 1985, the ACLU filed a lawsuit arguing that narcs were seducing students so they would buy and sell drugs, and therefore, both the police and school officials involved were essentially contributing to the delinquency of minors. “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,” said Gregory Marshall, legal director of the San Diego ACLU chapter at the time. Instead, he argued that the program was meant “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.”

Now, this has almost always been a big problem with narcs. In 1987, an L.A. Times piece chronicled the story of a high school football player who fell in love with a new student named Sharon Fischer. The problem was, Fischer turned out to be a narc, and she took advantage of his feelings so he would buy her cocaine. She was later fired when her department decided that she had maintained an “improper” romantic relationship with the young boy.

This problem hasn’t been fixed either. In 2014, Jesse Snodgrass, a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, was entrapped by a narc who had been posing as a high school student, and more importantly, his only friend. The covert cop persuaded Snodgrass to buy a small amount of weed before arresting him.

Such behavior was widely reported early on. Case in point: Per another 1987 L.A. Times article, “The LAPD program requires young attractive police officers to enter the schools pretending to be new students, make friends and try to convince as many as possible of their new ‘friends’ to buy them drugs, usually marijuana. Many arrests made under the school-buy program are of first-time offenders arrested for agreeing to obtain a small amount of marijuana as a favor for a friend who turned out to be a police officer. Real drug sellers are sophisticated enough to see right through the undercover officer’s fake identity.”

These days, it’s tough to say how many narcs are out there. “Narcs were common in the 1990s and early 2000s,” says Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University. “But most police departments find them costly.” The cheaper version: “Using draconian drug laws as a weapon to turn minor users who’ve been arrested [not necessarily by a narc] into informants is far more cost efficient. A kid who gets arrested is offered a nickel (he turns in five others) or a dime (he turns in ten others). It’s a dangerous thing to do, but several years in prison isn’t appealing to teens.”

Not to mention, the morality of them. “We have our own problems with ethics in covert and undercover policing, but pretending to be a high school student is off the scale,” says Neil Woods, who spent 14 years infiltrating drug gangs as an undercover police officer in the U.K. and is now chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization seeking an alternative to the U.K.’s current, failing drug laws. “It could never happen in the U.K., and any suggestion of doing it would provoke universal disgust. Not only would it not be allowed, I doubt I’ve met a British cop who would propose doing something so utterly twisted.”

“Undercover work is the nuclear option in policing,” Woods continues. “It’s the ultimate intrusion by the State into people’s private lives. The rules in the U.K. state that it can only be used where normal policing practice has failed or is impossible. Put that ethos into a school scenario, and you have to consider that this is the realm of the school teacher — let them finish with the kids first before the State gets really serious.”

While high school narcs might be less prevalent in the U.K., Woods mentions that they have their own problems with children being used by the police, which is really the same larger issue. “We have a problem that’s about to be a big issue relating to children involved in crime, and that’s the use of child informants,” he explains. “We’ve recently begun to catch up with the U.S. in the amount of children involved in the drug trade. This is, of course, a result of police success — the same as the U.S. Kids are the logical buffer zone between police and gangster. They’re disposable and easy to manipulate. And so, the response here is to try and recruit more child informants. This is a ‘secret’ intent that has been leaked by concerned covert police and will soon play out in the political realm.”

The point is, using police to deceive children, either to recruit informants or to bust otherwise innocent drug users, is probably the wrong approach — at least, that’s what the failures of DARE and the War on Drugs seem to suggest. “When we’re seriously considering either spying on our young or using them as spies, we’ve stepped into the realm of insanity,” Woods emphasizes. “How bad does it have to be before we realize that these considerations of manipulating our young are due to the lack of regulation in the drugs markets? We need full legal regulation to protect our young from both organized crime and the State.”

So in reality, those rumors you heard about narcs in high schools are very real and probably much more damaging (and less funny) than they seemed at the time. And while fixing the drug problems we have in the U.S. is certainly tricky, one thing at least is very clear: Screwing with our kids doesn’t solve anything.