Rats

A friend of yours is a big partier. She's starting to do drugs more and more and is adding new, scarier drugs to the mix.

She's even started to bring drugs with her to school. You're getting worried that's she's spinning out of control and wonder if you should tell an adult at your school about her problem.

It's not an easy decision to make. Would $50 or $100 convince you to get her some help? Some schools are wagering that it would.

Across the country, high school administrators are experimenting with paying students to tell school officials if classmates have drugs, alcohol or weapons with them on school property. Kids can also report students who have made violent threats against themselves or others.


"Cash rewards, they say, would ensure that more kids would do the right thing."
These programs are all fairly new and started locally, so no national figures exist on how many public schools have such programs in place. But schools in Colorado, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maryland are all experimenting with paid tips programs, many of which are affiliated with the national Crimestoppers program.

Proponents of the programs say that it would be great if kids would always come forward to report dangerous situations, but that the reality is that for many kids, the satisfaction of just doing a good deed isn't enough to make them rat out someone in their class. And cash rewards, they say, would ensure that more kids would do the right thing.

Several highly publicized mass shootings in suburban schools in recent years have many kids, parents and school officials worried about school safety. Especially because in most of these cases, the student shooters told someone -- and often several people -- about their violent plans beforehand.

If paying kids can increase the number of tragedies that can be averted if students tell authorities about dangerous situations, proponents argue, why not do it?

"It's just another strategy to get information," said Sherri-Le W. Bream, principal of Westminster High School in Carroll County, Md. Westminster High School's student senate developed Project TIPS, a program that pays students up to $100 for information about illegal activities on campus.

Insult and injury

Bream said that many students would like to continue Project TIPS next year. Right now, the school board is reviewing the program, which has gotten flack from many students at Westminster who complain that it insults their integrity to assume they'd need to be paid to speak up.

"I personally refuse to take part in this program, as it goes against everything I stand for," said ChickClicker hotpants1, a student at Westminster High School. "Some seniors are selling T-shirts that say, 'Reward for ratting out your best friend: $100. Knowing that you've sold your soul and lost everything that you stand for: Priceless. There are some things that money can't reward -- for everything else, there's Project TIPS.'"

And its not only students who are concerned about the programs message.

"If no thorough or appropriate investigation follows a tip, getting kids to come forward won't yield any useful or helpful results."
"It's a sad commentary that we have to give monetary rewards for what should be a moral imperative," said Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

"It's the challenge for educators to encourage youth to take responsibility for themselves and their communities," he said. "If payment is needed to make kids come forward about dangerous situations, the level of trust that students have in the administration is questionable."

Many agree that student trust in school administrators is a crucial part of the equation. If no thorough or appropriate investigation follows a tip, getting kids to come forward won't yield any useful or helpful results.

Students who spoke at the North Carolina Task Force on Youth Violence in 1999 said that they felt that there was no use in reporting incidents because nothing would be done about it, according to Joanne McDaniel, acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a research and education organization based in North Carolina.

"Policies don't prevent problems. Policies are only as good as the people who put them into practice, she said.

McDaniel agreed with Feinberg that the effectiveness of tips programs depends on an appropriate response on the part of administrators.

"Students need to be comfortable enough that they can go to someone at their school and get help," she continued.

Rat abuse

Many who oppose the pay-for-tips-programs -- students or otherwise -- say that such a program is rife with opportunity for abuse. Unscrupulous students can make up stories about classmates they don't like or want to retaliate against just to collect a cool 50 bucks.

Bream, principal of Westminster High School said, however, that of the six or so students who have been arrested or suspended as a result of Project TIPS, most have refused the money.

"We'd like to hopefully evolve to the point where the money isn't necessary," Bream said. "We're building an education program to encourage students to do the right thing on their own."

With news reports saying over and over that public schools in the United States are failing -- they're underfunded, teachers aren't paid enough and there aren't enough support services (i.e.: counseling) for students. So if kids are refusing the money anyway, should part of schools' overstretched budgets be spent on programs like TIPS?

Experts like McDaniel say that building a student community that looks out for its members begins with the belief that someone is looking out for them.

"Any kind of reporting program should be a last resort," she said.

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