WireTap

High School Pentagon Sting

A high school journalist goes undercover to find out just how far recruiters will go to enlist teens.
David McSwane had seen the military recruiters around town. He had seen them at the high school. And he knew that with recruitment rates down due to the Iraq war, they were working hard to attract new cadets. And it gave him an idea.

"I wanted to see how far they'd go to get another soldier," says McSwane, a reporter for the Westwind at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo. So he set up a sting investigation, posing as a high school dropout with a marijuana habit and went down to his local Colorado Army recruitment station to enlist.

McSwane, 17, knew he would have to document his conversations with the recruiters, so he taped the telephone conversations, enlisted his sister to pose as a proud sibling so she could photograph parts of the process, and asked a friend to operate a video camera across from a local head shop.

But how did McSwane get an recruiter to visit a head shop with him? Simple. The honor student, pretending to have a ganja habit he couldn't kick, went there to score a detoxifying kit the Army office claimed had helped two previous recruits pass drug tests, according to a taped phone conversation broadcast on local TV. McSwane told his recruiter he didn't know what the detox formula looked like, so the man agreed to go to the store with him.

Aside from his drug problem, McSwane said he had no high school diploma -- which at that time was true, as he graduated about two months later -- and that he had dropped out of high school. No problem, the recruiters told him. There are Web sites where anyone can order a diploma from a school they make up. "It can be like Faith Hill Baptist School or whatever you choose," one recruiter can be heard saying on one of the taped exchanges.

After the fruits of his investigation ran in the Westwind, there was a brief lull.

Then a Denver TV station picked up the story and ran with it, first airing McSwane's findings on April 28. Within a few days the boy's sting had made national headlines, and the U.S. Army froze recruiting operations nationwide for a day. (His two would-be recruiters were suspended.)

"It's been kind of cool to see a reaction from the Pentagon on a story done in a high school paper," the teen reporter says. He has appeared on local and national TV, and articles on his investigation have appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The New York Times. One could understand if the school was a bit unaccustomed to all the media attention.

Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for Jefferson County Public Schools, said that after the initial report ran in Westwind, "the principal was very clear with David that the articles could not go any further into his undercover actions." Because the school paper is produced as part of a class, the principal reviews the paper prior to publication and has the power to spike any story.

McSwane says his scrupulous documentation has for the most part prevented naysayers from calling his investigation false. Still, he says, some have questioned the ethics involved in a deceptive operation like the one he orchestrated: "Any undercover investigation, you're going in there as a lie. And a lot of people don't like it."

In the fall McSwane plans to start on a journalism degree at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. But he's not taking it easy in the meantime. "I work retail graveyard shifts right now, because I've got to make money for college," he says, upon waking in the mid-afternoon. On his days off, he interns at the Arvada (Colo.) Press.

Like any good romance, McSwane's love of journalism started with something of an accident. "I guess I've always had a knack for writing," he says. "One day one of my English teachers just put me in newspaper class without my permission."
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