ELIZABETHTON — Donna Rogan was given a difficult first assignment in her law enforcement career. The 22-year-old deputy with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department was asked to serve as an undercover agent for this school year to determine the amount of drug activity in the high schools in the county.
While she posed as Hannah Reagan during school and extracurricular activities, it took more of her life than that. In order not to blow her cover, Rogan had to temporarily give up the most important things in her life. She had to stop attending First Christian Church in Johnson City and couldn’t afford to be seen with other young adults and friends.
Sheriff Chris Mathes said that for the past 10 months she has had to put her real life in a shoe box.
Looking back on the difficult first assignment, Rogan said, “I am glad I did it,” but she admits she would be hesitant to repeat it. “It seemed like a lot longer time.”
Rogan had some unique advantages for her role. Her family is from the Albany, N.Y., area, so she had no preconceptions or prejudices, and her mother had a degree in theater from Skidmore College. Rogan was exposed to theater from a young age and knew character development. But the longest she had ever had to be in character was a two-hour play. During the undercover operation, she had to be in character for an entire school year.
Rogan moved to the Tri-Cities in the third grade. She attended public schools in elementary school, then attended St. Mary’s in Johnson City for middle school and Tri-Cities Christian School for high school, so she had no previous experience being in a public high school.
“I was interested in law enforcement since early in high school,” Rogan said. She participated in the Explorer program with the Johnson City Police Department and is majoring in law enforcement as a senior at East Tennessee State University.
The idea for the undercover operation came from Mathes, who worked undercover during his time with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Mathes said he had heard from parents who were worried about drug activity in the high schools and was looking for the right person to conduct an undercover operation.
Rogan’s first experience with the sheriff’s department came in January 2012, when she responded to an article in the paper about tryouts for the department’s reserve officer program. During the first night of the training, prospective reserve officers were asked to introduce themselves. Rogan discussed her interest in law enforcement, especially in working in drug enforcement.
She impressed department personnel during the program’s training, with her class work and her potential. Mathes believed he had found the officer he needed to go undercover. He began coordinating with 1st Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark and Director of Schools Kevin Ward to set up the operation while Rogan was sent to the law enforcement academy.
Rogan said she did not make quite as good a first impression at the academy as she had in the reserve program. She reported to the academy in a business suit and high heels and soon found herself wearing those clothes while participating in the first physical training session. One of the instructors told her “you came to the wrong building, the cocktail waitress course is in another building.” He started referring to her as Barbie.
From that rocky start, Rogan excelled. “We got rave reviews from the academy whenever we checked on her,” Mathes said.
When she graduated, the instructor came to her to admit she had come to the right building and told her she could do well in law enforcement.
Soon after her return from the academy, Rogan was prepared for her assignment. A support team helped her to capture the look of a Carter County high school senior. She set up a Facebook account which helped her learn some of the acronyms and other words that were popular.
Finally, her first day of high school arrived.
“It was like going to high school for the first time. I was worried about whether I would make friends,” Rogan said. She didn’t have to worry. Fellow students were quick to show her around and offer friendship. It was also easy to find out about the drug culture. She remembers one student welcoming her to the high school by saying it was where the students were higher than the grades.
Mathes said Rogan’s role was never to entrap a student, merely to go along with the drug culture. She was quickly accepted into that culture and found she was shunned, but not treated in an unfriendly manner, by the more serious students.
She did feel shunned and lonely when she transferred to another school and Hannah’s drug-culture reputation was not tolerated by most of the student body.
In addition to identifying drug problems in the schools, Rogan also was able to shine a light on many positives in the schools. Teachers and counselors who cared and offered to help her and students who were there to learn.
But she uncovered some problems unrelated to drugs. In one class, the teacher frequently left the room. One day a student took advantage of the situation to expose himself to Hannah.
“Most of the males just laughed,” Rogan said. “Most of the females were disgusted.”
She was surprised the action did not go beyond the students as none of the students told parents or school staff about the incident.
“That just would never have been tolerated where I went to school,” Rogan said.
As bad as the experience was, Rogan said she was glad it happened to her rather than one of the real students, who might have been traumatized by the event.
Rogan said she was also surprised by the parents who condoned or even encouraged their children’s lifestyle choices.
Rogan said some of the most difficult moments of her job were watching classmates make bad choices. She wanted so bad to step out of character and counsel them on how the decisions they were making would have negative impact a few years down the road.
Rogan also felt the pressure of living her character day after day. She had to give up her social life and her church life during the months she was undercover.
She said her daily routine consisted of going to school during the day, reporting to her support team at the sheriff’s department every afternoon in person or by email and taking classes at ETSU during the evening.
The undercover operation came to an end a bit earlier than planned, Mathes said, when guns entered the scenario. One of the parents was a felon in possession of guns and Hannah was scheduled to go shooting with the family.
Mathes said he knew the scenario was getting dangerous and decided Rogan’s assignment could finally come to a successful conclusion.
Rogan now proudly wears the uniform of a law enforcement officer out in the open for everyone to know what she stands for.