Posing as a Student, a Daring Cop Scores a Coup by Busting High School Drug Dealers

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was pert and fairly pretty, but the word spread quickly through the student body: The new kid in the junior class last fall at L.A.'s Narbonne High was a doper. She hung out with a druggie crowd who were high by 8 a.m. and stoned all day. She spoke the jargon of a heavy user, and if you still didn't get the message, she sometimes wore a T-shirt that said it all: "How do you spell relief? MARIJUANA." Silent and sullen during classes, she came to life when the noon recess bell sounded. Then she made whispered deals to buy grass, cocaine and pills from the drug dealers in the school of 2,200.

She looked like a young girl on the road to big trouble; in fact, she would put some of her classmates in jail. On Nov. 16, 1982 Teri McKown, the spaced-out "17-year-old," reverted to her real identity as Officer Teri McKown, 25, an undercover juvenile narcotics officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Teams of detectives fanned out to pluck 14 alleged pushers from their classrooms or homes in the neighborhood. When the handcuffed suspects were brought face to face with McKown so she could identify them, they were visibly shocked. One tall blond 15-year-old boy broke down at the sight of her and sobbed, "I thought she was my friend."

While the kids felt betrayed, Teri was feeling some guilt over her nine-week deception. "It was hard to look at them," she admits, "but you were there doing your job and they were breaking the law. Anyway," she adds, "it's good for them in the end. They have to find out that drugs are bad for them." That certainty is the rationale for the LAPD's highly sophisticated undercover operation, the eight-year-old School Buy Program under which Teri was sent to Narbonne.

In the mid-'70s, when School Buy began, drug abuse in L.A. schools was epidemic. Drug-related deaths and hospitalizations of students were rising dramatically. Since the teenage pushers would sell only to fellow students, conventional narcotics detectives were unable to make cases. Then in 1974 Lt. Donald La Guardia dispatched a single youthful-looking cop to pose as a student in a drug-plagued school. The experiment was phenomenally successful. In six weeks the officer arrested 20 dealers. La Guardia, now chief of the department's Juvenile Narcotics Section, was given the go-ahead to launch School Buy. The plainclothes kiddie corps has arrested 2,300 drug dealers (93 percent of whom were convicted) and confiscated uncounted pounds of marijuana, heroin and cocaine, $700,000 in drug profits and an arsenal of firearms. "The schools were a sanctuary for drugs," says La Guardia. "We haven't eliminated the problem, but this is the best way of dealing with it."

Teri McKown had put in a year on the force and was doing patrol car duty when a School Buy recruiter offered her the chance to go back to high school seven years after her own graduation from Ontario, Calif. High School. La Guardia and Sgt. Everett Berry, now head of School Buy, usually choose their mock high schoolers direct from the police academy graduating class, but McKown seemed ideal. She had junior prom looks and the maturity to pull off a difficult assignment safely. Since School Buy targets only dealers, not users, there would be no easy busts. She would work alone, unarmed and without the protection of her badge. No one could order her to accept those conditions: School Buy is an elite, volunteers-only outfit. Eager for the experience in narcotics investigations, McKown signed on.

In mid-August she reported to the intensive training course La Guardia and Berry run for their clandestine cops. For four weeks the 20 male and female officers in the class were drilled into their new teenage identities. McKown would be on her own in the school. Not even principals know when they have a School Buy officer enrolled, so she had to be able to hold her cover under pressure. By playing out disaster scenarios, she and the other cops learned to handle themselves if events got out of hand. "Whenever a new type of ticklish situation occurs to one of our undercover officers," says Berry, "we write it down and then build a scenario to fit it." Earlier classroom cops have been robbed at gunpoint and badly beaten. One officer was recognized by a teenager he had once given a traffic ticket; he escaped a knife attack by jumping a school fence and running away. The cops decreased their risks by learning how to dress—button-front jeans and rock shirts—the music to listen to, the phrases to drop. Says La Guardia: "They must learn to hang out, skip school, act spaced-out and use dope talk."

Teri's double life at Narbonne High began Sept. 14. From the first, she suffered serious culture shock. "It was very different from when I went to school," Teri recalls. "The language they use now is really foul and very sexually oriented. The girls are very aggressive. And it used to be that the druggies were the minority. Now they're the majority. They're running away from reality and it's sad." Recognizing the heavy users was easy: They were unresponsive in class, and kids who got high by smoking cigarettes dipped in PCP were unable to remember much beyond their names. It took Teri a few nervous weeks and several rebuffs for "asking too many questions" before she made her first buy. "I wasn't sure the dealer would sell to me," she says, "but someone said, 'She's okay.' It was like being a little kid. I was real excited."

The first $8 deal led to others. Teri was established as a regular buyer of grass, cocaine, PCP and amphetamines. The on-campus transactions became casual. Buying from the more cautious dealers who would only sell outside the school was another matter. "I was scared to death," Teri admits. "No one knows where you are, and without a gun anything can happen. You're always wondering: Are they on to me? Are they going to pull a gun and rob or rape me?" The fear of being exposed as a spy was a stressful constant. "They say things that shoot a little paranoia through you and you wonder if they know," Teri observes. "Once, for instance, some kids said to me, 'Hey, Teri, how come you have so much money?' You just have to calm yourself down at those times by telling yourself there's no way they could be on to you." As a police officer, Teri could not use any of the drugs she bought (she spent $221 on 18 buys), but making excuses challenged her creativity. When boys asked her to share a joint or go out on a date, Teri always had to go somewhere. Usually she explained she was going to work for her "father" in a fictitious printing plant. When students asked her to help them get part-time jobs with him, Teri would respond with a vague "Maybe at Christmastime."

If any of her drug suppliers had tried to follow Teri from school, they would have found that her "home" was an intelligence room in the LAPD where Teri was debriefed daily by her supervisor, Det. Salvador Nares. The sessions were informal by normal police standards, and the banter was a good antidote to Teri's undercover tensions. The two discussed each of Teri's deals, delving through a forest of nicknames to find the real names of the pushers. Sometimes she was able to clinch cases by spotting a familiar face in the Narbonne yearbook. To get her mind off the schoolyard drug beat, Teri would work out in the police academy gym or swim lengths in the pool. A natural athlete, she had been a swimming coach at the Claremont Colleges before joining the department in 1981 and has won five swimming gold medals in the Police Olympics. Her evenings were spent at home. When she went out with her steady boyfriend of five years, an airline reservations technician, they were careful to stay miles away from Narbonne High.

Making good grades was no problem. La Guardia discourages scholastic overachievers: "We like them to be real dummies," he explains, "because that's what the dopers usually are. But they can't goof off too much, or they'd be suspended." Teri took classes in U.S. history, art, American literature and phys. ed. and managed average marks. As a real-life high school student, she had averaged A-minus. At Narbonne, her strategy was simple: "You act as though you think the teacher's a jerk," she says. "I didn't bother too much with homework."

In the past La Guardia has had difficulties with officers who got caught up in classroom role-playing and actually enjoyed the chance to study. When their surveillance semester was over, some School Buy officers even called up their favorite instructors to offer compliments on their teaching. The response was usually sour; teachers voiced anger at having been deceived. La Guardia has also had to disappoint husky male officers who were coveted by the school football coach who wanted them to play: "You can't do it, or the whole team will be ineligible."

By the end of her "semester" Teri had built solid cases against 14 pushers. Six were juveniles and eight were adults up to 27 years of age. Briefing undercover officers, La Guardia set out the strategy for one of the off-campus arrests. Using diagrams drawn from memory by Teri, he pointed out entrances and exits and possible locations of drugs and weapons. "Okay," La Guardia concluded. "We'll rendezvous at zero eight fifteen hours. The operational frequency will be Tac-one on your car radios. Let's go."

During a drug purchase in one apartment, Teri had spotted a rifle hidden under a sofa. "I'll take the suspect into the living room," said Sergeant Berry beforehand, "and if he goes for the rifle, we'll send him to Jesus." The suspect offered no resistance. The roundup was quick and well coordinated. Within four hours all of Teri's pushers were booked. The juveniles were given a date for a juvenile court appearance and waited at the police station until their parents arrived to reclaim them. The adults were jailed until they made bail (the highest was $5,000). If all eight adults are convicted, even if they have previous records, they will most likely be placed on probation.

For Narbonne's principal, Dr. Richard Browning, 47, the punishment does not fit the crime. "It's amazing how lenient the courts are," he complains. "All the kids arrested today will be back. They will be either transferred to another school or placed in special schools for unruly students. So they'll take the problem elsewhere." Even though he was kept in the dark about McKown's activities, Browning applauds the School Buy Program as a strong response to the proliferation of drugs in Los Angeles' 55 high schools. "I think having the undercover cop in the classroom is preferable to having more drug dealers on campus," declares Browning. When he surveyed parents last spring, Browning found that two-thirds of them were more worried about illegal drugs than any other school problem. In 1975 the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit to keep School Buy officers out of the classrooms. The L.A. Superior Court threw the suit out, ruling that there was no indication of improper activity by the police.

Teri McKown has now put on her uniform again, strapped on her pistol belt and returned to normal duty. "They're basically good kids who have no guidance because their parents don't give it to them," says Teri of her former classmates. "A lot of these kids already have slim chances of having happy, successful lives. Their involvement with drugs reduces those chances further." And the School Buy Program will continue. Next semester another 12 officers will be infiltrating other area schools. By the time Narbonne's turn comes round again, La Guardia predicts that drug dealers will again be circulating their printed business cards and openly peddling drugs. "We're doing something to keep a lid on it," he says, "but it's a sad commentary on our society today that this type of operation is necessary."

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