Parents of Special-Needs Student Targeted in Police Sting Sue School District

Undercover operations in schools harm kids and do little to affect the supply of drugs.

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In May, AlterNet reported on a 17-year-old special-needs student in Temecula, Calif. who was arrested after being tricked into purchasing pot for an undercover cop posing as another student at his school.

The student, who suffers from a number of disabilities, believed the cop who took an interest in him was his friend. After more than three weeks and 60 text messages bugging him to find some marijuana, the boy purchased half a joint from a homeless person for his new "friend," using $20 the cop had given him a couple of weeks prior. Soon after, the student was arrested in front of his classmates as part of a sting that set up 22 students in all, many of whom were special-needs kids.

The parents of the 17-year-old announced October 30 they are suing the school district that authorized the undercover operation.

"Our son is permanently scarred from the abuse he suffered,” said the boy’s parents Catherine and Doug Snodgrass in a press release.

They filed a lawsuit against the Temecula Valley Unified School District as well as Michael Hubbard, director of child welfare and attendance, and Kimberly Velez, director of special education, charging negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress among other lesser charges.

“Right now, our focus is on him, and our entire family," the Snodgrasses said. They hope their suit will send a message to schools around the country that these types of raids targeting vulnerable students will not be tolerated.

The LAPD stopped using undercover stings in schools in 2005 after a review suggested police were targeting special-needs children, and their operations were ineffective at reducing the availability of drugs in schools. A Department of Justice study later confirmed that these operations do little to affect the supply of drugs.

Retired LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, who now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the drug war, said the in-school stings exemplify “the polar opposite of good policing.”

“What we have witnessed here is ... an example of how the drug war skews the priorities of law enforcement officers,” he said. “There was no crime here until the police coerced a special needs student into committing one. They didn't lessen the amount of drugs available and they didn't provide help to any students who may have had a legitimate problem. Instead, they diminished the life prospects of everyone they came into contact with. As a parent, as a retired police officer, as a human being, this outrages me.”

The Snodgrass family has set up a legal fund to help end undercover drug stings in school. 

April M. Short previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort