The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass

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Stings like these can have a long-term impact on kids, sometimes in devastating ways. Research shows that juvenile arrests predict brushes with the law as adults. "These kinds of practices push students out of school and toward the criminal-justice system," says state director Lyman, noting that minority, special-needs and poor children are particularly at risk. "It's known as the school-to-prison pipeline."

Persuaded by the high potential for bad outcomes for kids, and by the lack of evidence of good results for communities, the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials has concluded that undercover high school operations are usually a poor strategy. "We're more interested in getting kids help that need it, rather than targeting kids to be locked up," says former police chief Larry Johnson, president-elect of NASSLEO. Even the birthplace of these stings, Los Angeles, has backed off the tactic; after the school district began openly questioning its efficacy in 2004, the LAPD abruptly shut down its 30-year-old undercover School Buy program.

Nevertheless, Riverside County is undeterred. This past December – one year after the raid that arrested Jesse Snodgrass – the sheriff's department announced yet another successful undercover operation: a semester-long sting that nabbed 25 high school students in the nearby cities of Perris and Meniffee, most for small amounts of marijuana. Among the arrestees was reportedly a 15-year-old special-ed student who reads at a third-grade level, arrested for selling a single Vicodin pill for $3, which he used to buy snacks. Perris Superintendent Jonathan Greenberg has called the operation "an unqualified success."

The Snodgrasses don't want their experience to be in vain and are now suing the Temecula Valley Unified School District, accusing it of negligence for allowing their son to be targeted despite his disabilities. "We think that we can make these operations stop," says Doug. "We want to use this to send a message to administrators everywhere. When they're approached by police departments about having an undercover operation at their school, they'll remember a district got sued."

Reflecting on his experience as the target of an undercover drug sting, Jesse still doesn't know quite what to make of it. "They were actually out to get us," Jesse says, sounding mystified as he swigs a protein shake; because of his PTSD, he still sometimes finds himself unable to eat and wants to regain some of the weight he's lost. He managed to graduate this past December and has started a job in construction. In the meantime, he has gleaned a few important lessons from the ordeal: "To not trust everyone you see," he says thoughtfully. Through his friend's harsh betrayal, he has come to understand that people aren't always what they appear to be, a cruel but necessary lesson that all children must learn sometime. He has realized that even adults are capable of acting with terrible unkindness and duplicity. Jesse's insights have made him wary of meeting new people, fearful of hidden motives, which, as he now knows, his disabilities make him powerless to detect. And Jesse learned one more valuable lesson.

"I mean, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, they taught me how to buy pot," he says, and breaks into a grin.

This story is from the March 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

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