Riverside police arrested 13 students in a Ramona High School undercover drug sting last semester that some education officials say ensnares naive teens while failing to catch major dealers.
The Ramona school-buy program was modeled after one pioneered 30 years ago by the Los Angeles Police Department that was ended last year amid criticism from school district officials.
Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach ran the LAPD school-buy program when he worked juvenile narcotics in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. He endorses it as an enforcement tool and a deterrent to students who bring drugs into schools.
Leach said he has no evidence that the school-buy program is effective, "but who's to say that any kind of narcotics enforcement works?"
"It's extremely beneficial if we can take some drugs out of the hands of some kids," Leach said. "If we can save one life, it's beneficial." Last semester, the Police Department recruited a young-appearing officer they believed fit the look of a teenaged "stoner" to work undercover. He enrolled at Ramona High School in Riverside and began hitting up students for drugs.
Not even the school staff knew the guy was a Riverside police officer sent to flush out campus drug dealers.
Riverside police Officer Bryan Galbreath worked undercover, posing as a student for almost four months with the Riverside police narcotics program. Thirteen students were arrested.
In three months, the officer bought drugs 25 times. On Dec. 6, police swept through the school to make the arrests, mostly for selling small amounts of marijuana.
It's difficult to determine how many Inland police departments run school-buy programs. Some are reluctant to say if they are, for fear of endangering the undercover officers. Others want to keep drug dealers guessing.
All A Setup?
Outside a Riverside courtroom in late January, 18-year-old Eric Bercher,a former Ramona student, slouched somberly on a bench next to his parents. Bercher was charged with two counts of transporting drugs for sale, including cocaine and ecstasy.
"I got set up bad," Bercher said, describing how the officer befriended him and other students, going to parties and football games, and cutting class with them.
"He bought me Taco Bell," Bercher said in disbelief.
Bercher pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in April. He said the officer's tactics were unfair and underhanded.
His mother, Maria Bercher, said she does not excuse the fact that her son was selling drugs but she said the officer pressured her son to get drugs for him.
"I think that what happened was not fair," his mother said, her eyes filling with tears. "He has been a good kid. He's a typical 18-year-old. After this, we just don't know what is going to happen. It's just ruined his life."
The police say they're after major drug dealers, she said. Instead, "it's like the little fish get caught."
Leach said the students who were arrested deserved to be arrested. "We're not out there to capture innocent little Johnny."
Other Ramona parents whose children were not arrested questioned the fairness of subjecting the school to bad publicity but said it was an acceptable way to deal with drugs in schools.
Nancy Brown, whose son is a sophomore at Ramona, called the undercover program "an excellent idea."
If they had been arrested for experimenting with marijuana, Brown said, she might be more sympathetic. "The thing was that they were selling it."
LAPD officers busted thousands of teenagers with drugs on campus during the school buy program's 30-year run.
Detective Rick Bustamante, of the LAPD Narcotics Division, acknowledged that the department faced complaints about the program "ever since Day One back in '74." He said the problem isn't the school-buy program itself, but that it's hard for parents and teachers to admit there is drug dealing in the schools.
Linda Wilson, student discipline coordinator for Los Angeles Unified, said some district officials questioned the wisdom of placing an undercover officer in schools from the beginning. Then came a 1996 law requiring mandatory expulsion for students selling drugs, she said. The district recently expelled 50 students from a single school for drug-related activities, Wilson said.
Kevin Reed, school district general counsel, launched a review of the program after district officials noticed an increasing number of students arrested were in special education. Also, Reed said, the police typically found very small amounts of drugs, usually marijuana.
This suggested to district officials that police were catching gullible students who were eager not to sell drugs but to make friends. Meanwhile, they suspected, the serious drug dealers continued to operate.
There was no evidence that the program reduced the numbers of students using drugs, or even made drugs less available in schools, Reed said. After Reed and other education officials publicly criticized the program in August 2004, the LAPD canceled it the following spring.
The ACLU lost a lawsuit in 1980 that contended the program entrapped students and violated their privacy.
No One Knew
Riverside's Detective Ron Kipp said the department plucked its undercover officer from police dispatch. He had been through the police academy in Brea and was waiting for an officer position in Riverside.
Bryan Galbreath, 24, trained all summer. He did a two-day crash course with LAPD, made undercover buys with Ontario police, and practiced with Riverside narcotics officers, Kipp said. In Los Angeles, Galbreath said, the officers coached him on dressing and talking like a teenager -- right down to how to wear his shoelaces and to use the proper terms for drugs, like calling marijuana "cush" and not "pot."
Kipp posed as Galbreath's father when he registered for classes. They told Ramona officials Galbreath's name was "Brian Stone" and he had just moved from Los Angeles. Not even Ramona High School Principal Mike Neece knew Galbreath was an undercover cop.
Neece declined to comment on the school-buy program.
Galbreath said he would talk openly with students about using drugs, in hopes that dealers would approach him. Other times, Galbreath approached students and asked to buy drugs.
"If someone said 'no,' that was it," said Galbreath, who now works as a patrol officer.
Galbreath and Kipp said they're confident they arrested serious drug dealers, even though they caught them with only small baggies of drugs, mostly marijuana.
"If we stop one person from dealing drugs on campus, we were successful," Kipp said. "It was more than successful."
Kipp said only one of the 11 students, who were under 18, contested their expulsion in hearings in January.
Kipp won't say where the officers are this semester, or if the department has an undercover officer in the schools at all. Either way, Kipp said, "we want them thinking that we do."
For the 2003-04 school year*, the Riverside Unified School District expelled:
*The most recent year available
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