The parents of a teenage son with Asperger’s Syndrome are suing his school district in Southern California on the grounds that he was unfairly targeted by an undercover police officer posing as a student. The then-17-year-old has suffered “psychological scarring” after his arrest, his parents, Doug and Catherine Snodgrass, assert in explaining why they are suing the Temecula Valley Unified School District, the director of child welfare and attendance Michael Hubbard and the director of special education Kimberly Velez on charges including negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Back in the fall of 2012, the Snodgrasses had been pleased to learn that their son, who is in special education and takes a number of psychiatric medications, had a new friend in art class, “Daniel Briggs.” Social interactions and friendships can be challenging for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and “Briggs” became the teen’s only friend. Accordingly, the Snodgrasses encouraged their son to invite his new friend over but were always told “some bizarre excuse.”
Little did they know that “Briggs” was actually Deputy Daniel Zipperstein of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, who had been pretending to be a student for months at Chaparral High School in Temecula to zero in on students using and selling drugs.
“Briggs” put pressure on the Snodgrasses’ son to buy drugs, at one time sending him 60 text messages, telling the teen that he was “desperate” and also asking for the teen’s prescription clonazepam. The teen couldn’t provide the latter (his parents keep his medications locked up and dispense them for him) but was able to obtain small amounts of marijuana, which he twice sold to “Briggs.”
On December 11, the teen was one of a number of students arrested in the “culmination of a drug operation” that saw deputies going undercover at Chaparral and Temecula Valley high schools. He was put into handcuffs in front of his classmates, interrogated without a lawyer and locked up for two days. The Snodgrasses were not notified of their son’s arrest, only knowing that something was amiss when he did not return home from school. When they called the principal’s office, they were referred to the Sheriff’s Department.
Their son was held in juvenile detention for two days; they were only able to see him at a juvenile court hearing on drug sales charges two days later and “the look in his eyes will forever haunt us,” the Snodgrasses write.
A juvenile court judge took the teen’s disability into consideration and dismissed the charges due to “extenuating circumstances” in January 2013. In the meantime, the Temecula School District wanted to expel the teen but a judge reinstated the teen after his parents filed for due process. The district has filed an appeal and is now seeking again to expel the Snodgrasses’ son even though he is to graduate in December, and the appeal process will not be completed until next year.
Law Enforcement Officers, a School District and a Sting Operation
The Snodgrasses assert that their son was wrongfully swept into a “sting operation” whose goal was “identifying and purchasing illegal drugs from persons dealing on campus” and that had been set up by law enforcement with the assistance of key school administrators. As the Snodgrasses assert, their son “is not and never was a drug dealer” but a young man with numerous disabilities who was extremely eager to have a friend and unable to assess what was going on.
Their son is, the Snodgrasses say,”visibly affected,” with disabilities serious enough that they should have been obvious to the deputy. He not only has Asperger’s but also bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, impulse-control disorder and anxiety; when under stress, he displays physical tics and may self-injure. The Snodgrasses discovered that many of their son’s classmates had sensed that there was something unusual about the student named Daniel Briggs, with some actually calling him “Deputy Dan.”
The ACLU lost a lawsuit in 1980 that contended the program entrapped students and violated their privacy. Thousands of arrests later, police stopped the program in 2005. Los Angeles Unified School District officials had noticed an increasing number of students caught were in special education and that police typically obtained very small amounts of marijuana. District officials feared the program was failing to catch the serious drug dealers.
Such undercover investigations have still been occurring in Riverside County. To name just one example, 24 students were arrested on drug-dealing charges at schools in Moreno Valley and Wildomar after deputies posing as students spent four months there in 2011.
Law enforcement and school district authorities tell the Press-Enterprise that they are sending “a message” with such undercover investigations. Catherine Snodgrass herself agrees with their desire to get drug dealers out of school. As she and her husband emphasize, their son was not drug dealer but a student with disabilities who now ducks when he sees a police car and who has seen his efforts to have a friend gone more than awry.
For parents like myself who have teenage children on the autism spectrum, the ordeal the Snodgrasses and their son have been through is a more than cautionary tale. Our kids are extremely vulnerable and all the more so because — especially as they are getting older — they are more than aware of their struggles with social situations. They can be too eager to engage with the first person who shows interest in them. A parent, seeking to promote a child’s independence while also looking out for him or her, can find herself unsure of how to proceed.
As Catherine Snodgrass told the Press-Enterprise, her son “went to school on a normal day. And it’s supposed to be a safe place for him.” It’s even more ironic, and chilling, that school has turned out to be such an unsafe for her son because there were law enforcement officers present doing what they call their job.
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