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April 24, 2004 - The Burlington Times-News (NC)

Authorities Speak About Drug Sweep

By Brandee Hayhurst

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Superintendent Jim Merrill went to the district attorney in May 2003 and asked for a massive undercover operation in Alamance County high schools, Rob Johnson was surprised. "I looked at him and said, 'Are you sure that this is something you want?'" Johnson said at a news conference Friday.

Nearly a year after that first conversation, 58 young people have pleaded guilty to selling drugs in school hallways, restrooms, and even classrooms. Some students sold the drugs, primarily marijuana, in designated meeting places off campus and after school. One student won at trial and one student lost. Prosecutors also dismissed a case this week.

While Friday's press conference at the school system's administrative building in Burlington heralded the end of an overwhelmingly successful operation, officials expressed a mood of relief or sadness rather than celebration. Most said they suspect drugs remain in the schools. "I think it has hopefully chilled it," Merrill said of drug deals on campus. "I wish I could say it was gone." Merrill also said the operation caused a lot of distraction for teachers as well as sadness for students and parents.

When seniors remember their last year, the busts probably will figure as prominently as memories captured in school yearbooks, he said. "I regret the human expense," Merrill said. "As long as I live, this is part of me. This is part of students." But he said the operation created a ripple effect, an increased awareness among parents and students about the prevalence of drugs. "If it helps even one child, it's worth the pain," Merrill said. Just a few days after school started in August, seven undercover officers enrolled in the county's high schools.

The Alamance County Sheriff's Department, Graham Police Department and Burlington Police Department all participated. Very few officials knew about the operation, including school principals and school board members. Armed with book-bag cameras, the undercover officers tried to fit in and befriend students who sold drugs or knew where to get them. Within days, some students talked to their new classmates about drugs.

Officials at the press conference countered criticism from some parents that undercover officers talked children into selling drugs or somehow entrapped them. "I think what shocked me was how easy it was to purchase drugs in our school system," said Burlington Police Chief Mike Gauldin. "I'm shocked that this operation came with the ease it did."

However, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said detectives pulled an officer out of Western Alamance High School after an "unintentional leak." They installed another deputy from Chatham County, but students were too suspicious of newcomers for the operation there to result in arrests. Even at other schools, students went up to officers and said, "I heard you might be a cop," the district attorney said. But that didn't stop about 50 students from taking some part in drug deals. The district attorney also said that he threw out at least a dozen cases before the Feb. 4 arrests.

The goal was to charge those truly involved in selling drugs or aiding in drug deals, not those who just had them, he said. Some parents and attorneys have criticized Rob Johnson for being too harsh on students and branding them with a felony record. But Johnson reiterated Friday that he believes allowing students to get off with misdemeanors would be an abuse of his power.

Johnson also was skeptical that judges would have accepted such deals. Despite the felony charges, he offered nearly identical probationary sentences to students, with special conditions such as drug testing and community service. "Some have said we were too harsh.

Some have said we were too lenient," he said. "Our goal is to hold (students) accountable," Johnson added. "It was not our goal to take these students and to put every one of them in prison for as long as we could and throw away the key."

Merrill said teachers generally are supportive about the bust, saying they are relieved that "something is finally being done." School board members also remain supportive of the operation months after the arrests.

Many said they hoped the bust would make students think twice before selling drugs on campus. "Everything was done aboveboard, and it was simply done to protect the students," board member Todd Baker said. Like many school officials, he said he feels sadness for those arrested. Board member Brenda Brown Foster said "something had to be done," and she "can't think of any other tactic that would have worked better."

"I'm hoping that we never have to do this again," she said. School board chairman Tom Lambeth said he guessed time would tell whether drug activity decreases on campus, but parents and teachers gave him largely positive and grateful feedback. "I really have a very heavy heart for all those kids and I regret this was necessary," he added.

The district attorney also said he did not want to have to do this again. Besides causing controversy, the operation created extra work and expense. The operation required the full-time attention of one of his assistant district attorneys for months, as well as the seven undercover officers.

And the State Bureau of Investigation in Raleigh had to rehire a retired forensic chemist to test the drugs. Johnson said he did not know how much the operation cost in total. Sheriff Terry Johnson said after the press conference Friday that although the undercover operation is over, investigators are still making arrests. "We are continuing to follow leads on off-campus suppliers," he said.

The most shocking arrest was of Graham High School teacher and coach Heather Renee Sweat-Melancon, the result of allegations she sold and used drugs with students. Her case is still pending. Although the arrest occurred after a tipoff by two students not connected to the undercover operation, Graham Police Chief Milford Miller said there is some relationship. "We raised awareness of the problem of drugs in the schools," he said.

Meanwhile, students, teachers and administrators are trying to recover and get back to the business of learning. Merrill said he had not planned any new drug programs or school policies, though the "inordinately high number of athletes" arrested has caused him to consider random drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities. Baker said the school board would have to talk about whether more is needed now that the operation has come to a close. "I haven't had a chance to sit back and digest it, and take a deep breath and look ahead," he said.

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