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Across Nation, Students Getting Paid To Be Informants

KCRA Channel | April 27 2005

ATLANTA -- For a growing number of students, the easiest way to make a couple of hundred dollars has nothing to do with chores or after-school jobs, and everything to do with informing on classmates.

Tragedies like last month's deadly shooting at a Red Lake, Minn., school have prompted more schools to offer cash and other prizes -- including pizza and premium parking spots -- to students reporting classmates who carry guns, drugs or alcohol, commit vandalism or otherwise break school rules.

"For kids of that age, it's hard for them to tell on their peers. This gives them an opportunity to step up if they know something that will help us make an arrest," said James Kinchen, an assistant school superintendent in Houston County, Ga., which earlier this month started offering rewards of up to $100 for reporting relatively minor crimes like vandalism or theft and $500 for information about a crime, or plans for a crime, involving a gun.

Critics call them "snitch" programs, saying they are a knee-jerk reaction to student violence. Some education professionals fear such policies could create a climate of distrust in schools and turn students against each other.

"There are very few things that I can think of that would be more effective at destroying that sense of community," said Bruce Marlowe, an education psychology professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

About 2,000 schools and colleges, from Honolulu to Palm Beach County, Fla., have adopted Student Crime Stoppers programs like Houston County, according to the nonprofit Crime Stoppers U.S.A., which began helping schools set up such programs in 1983.

Most schools offer an anonymous phone line or a school drop box for tips. Rewards range from cash to gift certificates to free parking passes.

Elsewhere in Georgia, Model High School in Rome uses the proceeds from its candy and soda sales to pay students up to $100 for tips about drugs or weapons on campus or other crimes.

The goal: "Heading off some problems rather than waiting until they happen and responding afterward," said Tim Hensley, a school system spokesman.

Some students fear classmates with a grudge or those set on making some quick money may level false accusations or plant drugs or weapons in their lockers.

But Houston County's Kinchen said: "That will sort itself out. Our officers deal with these kind of things everyday; they can find out which kid is being set up and which kid is telling the truth."

At Model High, some of the 650 students complain that the program wrongly implies their school is dangerous. In a Rome News-Tribune cartoon, the school's official mascot was mockingly changed from the Blue Devils to the "Tattlers."

No one has received a reward yet at Model High.

"Everyone just thinks it's a joke. No one is going to tell on their friends for cash," said senior Katie Burnes, president of the school's National Honor Society chapter. "If someone brings a gun to school or is doing drugs in the bathroom, no one has to pay me to let the teachers know."

Frank Farley, an educational psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, said students should be taught to speak up without being offered a reward.

"This idea of surveillance - there's something unsavory there," Farley said. "We're familiar with the history of that in the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany." He added: "I think it's bad civics."