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The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass

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"My son is self-injurious," Catherine pleaded. "If he hangs himself on your watch, it is your fault." Incredibly, Jesse's parents were never notified of their son's arrest, but learned of it when he didn't surface after school; a cascade of calls had finally put Doug in touch with the school principal, who informed him in a businesslike way that Jesse had been arrested hours earlier. Both parents had been shocked, but like Jesse himself, they assumed this was some sort of fixable error. And yet to their horror, they'd come to discover that their son – a boy who scarcely left home – would now be detained for at least the next two days.

"You know, Mama, the kids here love it," a female officer told Catherine when she called the juvenile hall that first evening to make arrangements to drop off Jesse's meds. "They get three square meals and a bed. They love it here, and they keep coming back." The implication stung Catherine: that the kids locked inside – including her son – were already criminals, headed for a life of incarceration.

That was also the message of the district attorney's office in the courthouse two days later. According to Doug and Catherine, as all of the families somberly gathered to see their children for the first time since the arrest, Senior Deputy District Attorney Blaine Hopp strode into the center of the crowd. "This should be a wake-up call to all of you. Your children are drug dealers," he announced. "But this is an opportunity to save them," he added, inviting parents to speak with him before the proceedings began. To the Snodgrasses' surprise, many did. That didn't stop Hopp from arguing to the judge that each child posed a danger to the community and should therefore stay in custody longer – a frightening prospect to parents and kids alike.

When Jesse's turn came, he was charged with two felonies, one for each marijuana sale. Hopp argued that Jesse should remain locked up for an additional month, until his next court date – even though the probation department, having reviewed his history, had recommended his release. From their seats, the Snodgrasses listened aghast as Hopp lambasted their son as a menace to society, and got their first glimpse of Jesse in his prison­issued orange jumpsuit. He didn't return their gaze. Jesse had regressed after spending three days and two nights in the juvenile prison system. And while incarcerated, he'd struggled to process Daniel's betrayal. "I thought we were really good friends," he kept mumbling to his fellow inmates, who had to explain the situation to him. When Jesse had finally been escorted into court, his expression was blank. Although desperate to see his parents, his eyes skipped right over them without recognition, a behavior they hadn't seen since his childhood. When the judge announced his immediate release, Jesse showed no sign that he had heard or understood.

At home, Jesse unraveled. For six weeks, he could barely summon language to speak and simply sat motionless, sometimes waving a hand in front of his face, much like when he was three years old. "I want to die," he managed to tell his parents at Christmastime, his face buried in his pillow. There were emergency therapy sessions and adjustments to his medication. His parents stayed up all night to keep watch. And in the midst of everything, the Snodgrasses received a letter from the Temecula Valley Unified School District, notifying them that in light of the allegations against Jesse and that he had sold drugs near campus, it was suspending him, and moving forward with his expulsion.

Few families in the Snodgrasses' situation fight back. Even fewer speak out. "There's a lot of shame for the family, for your kid to be involved with a drug case," says Lynne Lyman, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The stigma is tremendous." But Catherine and Doug Snodgrass were atypical parents. They'd been fighting with school districts Jesse's entire life; in their younger days, they'd been union organizers. And the Snodgrasses were convinced they had no reason to hide. "We have nothing to be ashamed of, Jesse has nothing to be ashamed of," says Doug. "The people who do this, they're the ones who should be ashamed."

The criminal judge seemed inclined to agree, noting that Jesse's autism amounted to "unusual and exceptional circumstances." Jesse was sentenced to "informal probation," wherein if he kept out of trouble for six months and did 20 hours of community service, his record would be wiped clean. The Snodgrasses accepted the quickie plea deal rather than put Jesse through the stress of a trial – and because they were already waging a battle on a second front.

In an effort to stop the Temecula Valley Unified School District from expelling Jesse, the Snodgrasses appealed to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings. During a six-day hearing in February 2013, the school district dug in its heels on its right to expel Jesse for his crime, presenting a parade of witnesses – including members of Jesse's trusted school support team – to insist that despite Jesse's autism, the boy knew right from wrong, and therefore should have been able to resist the undercover cop's entreaties. The district's director of Child Welfare and Attendance, Michael Hubbard, who was one of only three district administrators with foreknowledge of the sting, further testified that his faith in Operation Glasshouse was so complete that he'd felt fine about Jesse's arrest. "I didn't believe it was coercion or entrapment for any of the kids," Hubbard testified.

In March last year, Judge Marian Tully's 19-page ruling excoriated the school district for setting Jesse up to fail. "The district placed Student in an extremely difficult social-problem scenario that would have been difficult even for typical high school students," she wrote, much less a special-needs kid. Chastising the district for "leaving Student to fend for himself, anxious and alone, against an undercover police officer," she ordered that Jesse be returned to school immediately.

Yet Jesse's victories did little to ease his frayed mental state as he headed back to Chaparral High School. He shook with anxiety in the car on the drive there and hadn't yet overcome his new habit of crumpling to the floor anytime they passed a police car. During the three-month suspension since his arrest, Jesse had been overwhelmed by paranoia so great that once when their doorbell rang, he tackled his mother to the floor, begging, "Don't answer!" Plagued by panic attacks and nightmares – the back of his left hand was gouged by a deep groove where he'd anxiously scratched himself raw – Jesse had been diagnosed with PTSD. He was frightened to be back at Chaparral, where the other kids stared and counselors who'd testified against him now smiled at him, and where, to his parents' disbelief, the school district had filed an appeal of the administrative ruling – it was still fighting to expel him.

Despite all that, Jesse was dimly aware that he had it pretty good compared to his fellow arrestees: Of the 22 kids arrested, he's apparently the only one still getting a traditional education. "Every one of us got expelled," says Perry, who now attends a reform school, along with most of the others caught in the sting. Others took their expulsion as a cue to drop out, like Madalyn, who now lives in L.A., working as a receptionist for an HVAC company. She was only three classes shy of a high school diploma. "So close," she says wistfully. But while less than thrilled about their day-to-day lives, they're grateful to have escaped worse fates, since Perry, Sebastian, Jessica and Madalyn, like many of the kids, pleaded guilty in exchange for no further jail time; their juvenile criminal records will be sealed. That puts them in a luckier boat than the two students who happened to have been 18 at the time of their crimes and were treated as adults: One, charged with selling marijuana and meth, spent 30 days in a men's jail, at which point he threw himself upon the mercy of the court and was sentenced to residential rehab; the second boy, charged with three marijuana sales, was sentenced to two years in county jail.

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