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Districts Weigh Paying Students for Tips on Crime

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In Antelope Valley, Calif., high school students can pocket $25 for turning in classmates who bring drugs or guns to school.

Since November, district officials have handed out more than $1,000 for tips that led to 38 arrests and the confiscation of five handguns. In January, the school board voted to keep the program alive and expand it dramatically by adding vandalism to the list of offenses and increasing the maximum reward to $1,000.

Similar reward programs are springing up in school districts around the country.

The Los Angeles school district, the nation's second largest, is weighing a proposal that would reward student informants with up to $75 in gift certificates and merchandise for phoning in tips on an anonymous hot line. Callers with valid tips would be given a number they could take to a local bank to receive their rewards.

The district would be among the first large urban systems, along with Memphis, to adopt such a policy, said Henry Duvall, the director of communications at the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington.

Proponents of such efforts laud the attempts to involve students in campus safety.

Critics, however, say students are being taught that informing, while morally desirable, can also be profitable.

'Zero Tolerance'

Both sides of that debate have been voiced in Antelope Valley Union High School, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles in Lancaster.

Davecq sd Rich, the director of pupil personnel for the 12,000-student district, designed the "Zero Tolerance" program, which began last June. It relies on metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and other deterrents to battle crime.

As part of the program, the district in mid-November began offering students $25 for tips on classmates carrying drugs or weapons. The school board has since voted to increase the rewards and adopted a policy that makes parents responsible for monetary damages if their child is convicted of vandalism.

Supporters of such "crime stopper" programs say one reason they work is that they give students a role in making their schools safer.

"One of the things the police and the schools have found is that they can't fight school crime themselves," said Ronald Stevens, the president of the National School Safety Center. "And students are beginning to realize that if they allow a crime to occur against someone else then they could be the next victims."

Criticism From Students

Though officials of the Antelope Valley district say the program has succeeded beyond their expectations, such get-tough policies have their critics.

""As educators we should be teaching lessons to last a lifetime," said Dave Kennedy, the president of the Antelope Valley Teachers Association.

"Students should take action as good citizens," he said, "because it's the moral and ethical thing to do, not because of rewards."

Among the most vocal critics of some reward programs have been students themselves.

Following the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old student at Cardozo High School in Washington, students belittled the idea of students informing on classmates.

The District of Columbia schools have had a policy rewarding students for anonymous tips about classmates carrying guns since August. In the first six months, seven guns were seized, according to program organizers--far fewer than anticipated.

For many students, the fear of retaliation is greater than the desire to make easy money.

A well-designed program can help allay such fears, said Larry Weida, a Boulder, Colo., police officer who began that city's "Scholastic Crimestoppers" program 11 years ago.

He said a program that is run correctly can eliminate the threat of retaliation. Since the Boulder program began, there have been no reported acts of violence against a tipster.

In response to critics who charge that offering money to students sends the wrong message about stopping crime, he pointed out that less than 6 percent of the reward money is ever picked up.

"The students wanted Scholastic Crimestoppers because they felt they were being victims and no one was listening to them," he said. "They wanted help."

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