The University of Massachusetts will suspend the use of student confidential informants until a full review of the controversial program is conducted. Turning busted students into secret informants for campus police is a little known program at a number of universities around the country. However, after one such student informant at UMass Amherst died of a heroin overdose, the costs and benefits of the anti-drug policy are being debated.
From Alabama to Wisconsin, colleges and universities have been coordinating with campus police to turn students busted for drugs into confidential informants. The program is heavily criticized by student groups and parents arguing that the vulnerable youth are pressured into acting as informants without any real alternative. But police and university officials contend that the program is successful in combating the problem of campus drug use.
Since 2009, UMass Amherst has utilized student informants in finding drug dealers. Now, a student death from a heroin overdose has put a halt to the program while officials review their policies. Under the program, police offer a student facing drug charges a deal; if they agree to inform on others, the school will not pursue criminal charges or disciplinary action, and will not inform parents.
A student identified as "Logan" was a promising junior at Amherst. When he was caught selling LSD to another informant student, the police offered him a deal. According to reports, he was most concerned with making sure his parents did not learn about the drug bust. He reluctantly agreed to become a student informant, and later lead police to other higher level dealers on campus.
Police and his parents say they never suspected heroin use. However, when Logan was caught for dealing LSD, he was in possession of a hypodermic needle. Police stated the needle could have indicated a variety of drugs. His parents criticize the university for failing to contact them, arguing that the needle should have been a signal that he was using heroin.
For the students agreeing to be informants, they received the benefits of no criminal charges, no disciplinary action, and importantly, no parental notification. In a statement issued by UMass, their assessment of the confidential informant program will determine whether it can "operate successfully with a mandatory referral to an addiction specialist or notification to a parent . . . while maintaining a program that deters distribution of illegal, lethal drugs."
It is unclear how many colleges and universities utilize some form of student informant policy. But officials from Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, and Tufts have said that their campus police departments do not have such a program. Now that UMass Amherst has suspended their use of informants, other universities including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Alabama may be reconsidering their informant programs as well.
Javonni Butler, a student at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was offered the opportunity to become a confidential informant after being arrested for selling marijuana, but declined. As a result, he spent time in jail, lost his financial aid, and was kicked out of school. He stated, "they pretty much put kids in a spot until they have no choice but to snitch."
Logan's mother would seem to agree. She stated the program puts a student, "into a situation where he sees no real alternative other than becoming a CI places a huge weight on that young person. It's just too much."
The UW-Whitewater police state that they have not much encountered heavy drugs such as heroin, but believe the informant program is a valuable tool in combating campus drug use. According to university police chief Matt Kiederlen, while acknowledging risks, he indicated using students as confidential informants "gives an individual who has put himself in a really bad position, an opportunity to come out at least with some possibility of recover."