Shane Feldman said his youthful appearance and work with teenagers gave him the ability to pose as a high school student in the A&E Network docuseries, “Undercover High,” shot on location at Highland Park High School this past spring. The first of 12 episodes for the series will air at 9 p.m. on Oct. 10.
The 22-year-old motivational speaker and CEO of Count Me In, a global youth empowerment organization, said he was approached by Lucky8 and Learning Tree Production producers because of his work inspiring teens to make their communities better and that “looking like a 12-year-old” may have been a factor as well.
In agreeing to be one of seven “embedded participants” who posed as high school students during the spring semester of the 2016-17 school year at the East Topeka school, Feldman said he had to put his personal and professional lives “on hold” in order to focus on being a high school student with responsibilities.
“I took a variety of classes,” he said from Los Angeles recently. “I had a full schedule. I’m only now getting (back) into work mode. I was focused on school life and getting my homework done.”
The series trailer that A&E released last week indicated the people who posed as students had to transform themselves into being a high school student again.
“The young adults include a former bully, victims of bullying, a teen mom, a youth motivational speaker, a set of siblings and a teen minister,” according to information provided by A&E. “Following thorough background checks, extensive training and ongoing meetings with psychologists and school counselors, these participants called Highland Park High School their new home for the Spring 2017 semester, befriending students and striving to implement positive changes to their lives and the school community.”
Mike Morrison, president of the Topeka USD 501 board, said in May that board members were “very cautious” about having the embedded participants come into the high school but were assured that they were properly vetted.
“We wanted to make sure this was healthy for our kids,” he said. “After some back and forth, we felt comfortable with this.”
Peg McCarthy, another board member and clinical psychologist, worked with Morrison and board member Nancy Kirk as the board’s policy committee who did the majority of the work before and during the shooting of the series with the show’s executive producers. She also said in May that the committee had “long, difficult discussions” about having outside, non-students immersed at Highland Park.
“We told them we wouldn’t do this if these students lied about who they are,” she said. “We had to be convinced. There was a lot of skepticism.”
Feldman said he didn’t lie about who he was when he enrolled at Highland Park High School in the early part of the spring semester.
“I was essentially playing a younger version of myself,” he said “It was simply me as I was back in high school. The only thing I had to do is change the timeline.”
Feldman said he couldn’t speak for the other six embedded participants, ranging from 21 to 26 years of age, as to what persona they took on as high school students.
Having “embedded participants” pose as people in the setting they’re sent into isn’t a new concept for Lucky8 Productions. At least one of the production company’s executive producers on “Undercover High,” Greg Henry, has also worked on “60 Days In,” another A&E series that has filmed embedded participants who pose as inmates in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail.
According to A&E, those participants have included a “special education teacher who works with at-risk youth, a man who believes that the system has failed African-Americans and wants to help fight discrimination, a former corrections officer who wants to see what it is like when the roles are reversed, a woman who met her husband while he was incarcerated and hopes to understand his institutionalized behavior, a Marine with law enforcement aspirations and others.”
According to Feldman’s website, shanefeldman.com, the native of Canada was a “child of divorce,” “constantly moving with his mom, lacked consistent male role models, experienced relentless bullying, and felt socially isolated” and moved eight times before starting high school. A school counselor was able to convince Feldman to get involved with his school which later inspired him to “help his peers find their passion through community involvement. What started as a small project remarkably went viral, and has since evolved into the global phenomenon known as Count Me In.”
Feldman said when he got to Highland Park early in the spring semester, he said he understood the curiosity several students had of him, asking him whether he was a new freshmen transfer.
“Kids were curious about my story,” he said. “It was fun to navigate those kinds of questions. I got the sense early on that Highland Park is an incredibly close-knit community.”
Feldman said going back to high school was a challenge in finding his “way” and his “footing” but he now feels he’ll always be a part of the Highland Park High School community.
“I feel like my high school memories will forever be intertwined with my Highland Park High School memories,” he said.
Even though he isn’t far removed from high school himself and his profession has him working with teenagers on a regularl basis, Feldman said being part of “Undercover High” opened his eyes to a new reality about today’s American youth.
“I learned that with all due respect, so many parents don’t know what’s going on in our schools,” he said. “I think this (series) is going to shed a very important light and bring parents closer to their kids than ever before.”
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or follow her on Twitter @AngelaDeines.