Eric Sinacori, 20, died in 2013 after injecting three bags of heroin. The prominence of opioid abuse today may not highlight this tragedy as unusual, except that Sinacori was acting as a confidential informant for campus police at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Sinacori was caught by campus police selling drugs on campus, and a year later his parents found him dead after he had overdosed following a drug deal with another student.
Sinacori’s parents sued the university for wrongful death because it did not notify them of Sinacori’s involvement with campus police. The suit was tossed because, according to a judge, it was only Sinacori who violated student codes, not the university. UMass, however, has since eliminated its confidential informant program.
“We have determined that our Police Department and Student Affairs division can employ other approaches … to combat illegal drug use, possession, and sales, and protect the members of our campus,” the school’s chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, said after Sinacori’s death and role as a campus informant came to light.
The use of narcs on college campuses usually only comes to light when the results are deadly—a student lost his life acting as an informant—or when the news media get wind of it.
“There has been outcry from parents (at the college level) who are appalled that their students, who they have entrusted to these institutions, have been put into compromised and dangerous situations.”
–Alexandra Natapoff, UC Irvine School of Law
Such cases highlight the inherent dangers of using informants. Law enforcement operates under a veil of secrecy often for legitimate reasons, but the use of confidential informants has shown deadly results and often legally questionable practices.
Using students as drug informants is risky, said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at U.C. Irvine and author of Punishment without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.
“The use of criminal informants is a highly secretive institution, and criminal justice and other public entities often do not disclose the extent to which they engage in informant use,” Natapoff said. “Nevertheless, we do know, anecdotally, of many instances in which schools use their own students as informants.
“The most high-profile examples that have come to light recently are in the college-campus context, and we have seen a number of scandals over the past couple of years in which students have come to harm as a result of the college campus policies.”
Natapoff said that local police or college police have pressured students into becoming informants when they are caught with small amounts of drugs.
Even using adult confidential informants, she said, is controversial. The U.S. Department of Justice criticized the DEA in 2015 about the government’s use of informants. The DEA resisted an audit by the DOJ about the practice, and the secrecy of how informants are used was highlighted as questionable because it allowed the federal government to green-light drug deals and other criminal activities without oversight.
Here at Home
Natapoff said using college students as informants is risky but that a case at a public high school level was unheard of. She was surprised when I read to her a portion of a Washoe County School District letter that documented the use of a high-school student serving as an informant in a drug investigation.
School district officials said there’s no policy against the practice.
“WCSD doesn’t have a specific policy in this area, but we do work closely with law enforcement agencies in promoting the School Secret Witness program and the State’s ‘Safe Voice’ program,” said district spokesperson Victoria Campbell.
The district’s Area Superintendent Lauren Ford, working in a previous capacity, was documented as giving back marijuana to a high school student. Her actions were defended by her then-supervisor, the now-retired Area Superintendent Roger Gonzalez. Gonzalez said that Ford gave drugs back to a student because the student was an informant in a drug investigation.
“That student had served as an informant and had provided the school with the name of the student who was dealing … drugs on the campus,” Gonzalez wrote.
Marijuana possession is considered a criminal offense, according to district policy, and administrators have discretion as to how cannabis possession is handled.
“Non-criminal matters that are reported are handled by school and district level staff,” said district spokesperson Campbell. “Criminal matters are handled by the school police department.”
Three points are mandatory, according to district rules, when drug possession is discovered: notification to school police, the school’s administrator, and the student’s parents.
When asked, a school district official said the district would like to explore the issue further.
“We don’t currently have a policy on student informants, and we thank you for bringing that to our attention,” said spokesperson Megan Downs. “This is something we would like to explore in the near future.”
It was, in fact, the district’s own documentation that brought the issue to light. When Ford gave back marijuana to a student, the act was memorialized by Gonzalez. Virginia Doran, the school district’s director of labor relations, Chris Reich, a school district attorney, and human resources employees, were all copied on the letter.
“These are children. I’m guessing they have policies about the materials used in the straws in the cafeteria.”
School officials did not elaborate on the district’s practice of using students as informants, but Natapoff said that, at the least, because of students being minors, the practice should have triggered a notification to parents.
“There has been outcry from parents (at the college level) who are appalled that their students, who they have entrusted to these institutions, have been put into compromised and dangerous situations,” she said. “I’m personally unaware of these practices at the high-school level, but it does not surprise me.
Such practices at educational institutions, Natapoff added, are “largely unregulated, secretive and lacking in accountability. The use of informant deals in schools raises its own highly troubling implications” that move schools more to a criminal justice model and away from educational goals.
Specific to the Washoe County School District, Natapoff further explained that “the fact that they are exercising their authority in these risky and problematic ways vis-à-vis with their own students without a policy is also unfortunately characteristic of the world of informants where institutions often make their own unregulated decisions about what kinds of deals to cut, what sorts of people to exert pressure on, and what kinds of information to gather without oversight or knowledge of best practices.
“Because it is such a secretive environment by its very nature, institutions often engage in policies that we would consider to be entirely unacceptable in other arenas of public policy,” she added. “These are children. I’m guessing they have policies about the materials used in the straws in the cafeteria.”