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Dialing For Dollars

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Nuri Ayers, principal of Sickles High School in Tampa, Florida, recently smelled smoke in the building. Her first move: put out the fire. Her next step: get on the intercom and ask students for help. "Anyone who knows anything," she urged, "please come forward."

Within 10 minutes, Ayers had her culprit. And the student who turned in the arsonist had $100, thanks to the reward the school offers for clues that help solve campus crimes.

Hillsborough County's Sickles High is not alone in trading cash for inside information. More and more school districts are teaming up with police to pay students to report weapons, drugs, vandalism, and other threats at schools. Last fall, for example, Houston Crime Stoppers, part of the national network of cash-for-leads hotlines that feeds anonymous tips to police, greatly expanded the number of schools it works with after experiencing success in a few pilot efforts. Next month, the Joliet Police Department in Illinois will add Gun Stoppers, a hotline for students' tips about firearms, to its safe schools programs.

"What we're saying is schools are for learning, and they should be safe," explains Lieutenant Patrick Kerr, a Joliet police officer. "But if they're not, give us a call, and we'll give you a reward."

And making the call can be pretty lucrative. In Joliet, Kerr says, the payment for a Gun Stoppers tip leading to an arrest will range from $300 to $1,000. In Harris County, northwest of Houston, the rewards can hit $5,000.

Detective Lisa Haber says that since the inception of Crime Stoppers in the 1,600-student Hillsborough School District three years ago, some 230 middle and high school students have been arrested, and more than $3,330 has been awarded to students. Anthony York, program director of Houston's Crime Stoppers, describes a recent case in which a student found a bombing plan and a list of teachers a disgruntled schoolmate wanted to see suffer. The would-be bomber was arrested "all because another student came forward anonymously," he says. "Without [the tip], we really don't know what would've happened."

Many students welcome the chance to stop violence. "I don't want anything bad happening to anyone," says Chrystal Freeman, a 7th grader at Eisenhower Middle School in Gibsonton, Florida. "I want to do what I can to make the school better." Haber of the Hillsborough County Police points out that the tip program empowers kids: "It allows students to take their own stance against crime in schools without retribution and without being labeled as a snitch." Ayers agrees, adding that the students' perception is not, "'I'm snitching on you,' but instead it's, 'You're infringing on my right to get an education.'" Ayers continues: "I think we finally crossed that tattletale barrier. It's now about a student's safety."

But should schools be offering kids money for information?

"The ideal would be that students would come forward and report crimes, [and] the money shouldn't be the reason," admits Patricia Harned, director of character development at the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C. "But, by the same token, the situation in our schools has really warranted it." Many officials argue that schools can't afford not to do everything possible to prevent violence. "No one wants their school on the national news," Houston's York says, "especially if they could have done something to stop it." Harned suggests that schools with cash-for-tips hotlines also make character education—teaching kids values such as responsibility and honesty—part of the curriculum, "so eventually we can phase out such programs."

Carrie Reynolds of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission knows that a program can work without rewards. The commission's two-year-old hotline, dubbed 4-SCHOOL, collected 50 "good tips" in its first year of operation, including information leading to the seizure of a school-bound bomb. Reynolds, the program's administrator, explains that her organization decided against cash rewards partly to help preserve students' anonymity—it's difficult for kids to secretly collect payment from a bank, she points out—and partly because "we didn't want students coming forward solely to get a reward."

"Once you get in the real world, you're not always going to be rewarded" for being a good Samaritan, says Reynolds. "We wouldn't want to get students in the habit of thinking that."

—Michele M. Capots

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