Carroll students defend tips program

Effort is praised for decline in drug-linked activity

April 12, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Members of Westminster High School's student government defended last night a 10-week-old program that pays students for information about illegal activity in schools, telling the Carroll County Board of Education that it has lessened drug dealing and the discussion of drugs among students.

"I've seen a tremendous difference in the talk about drugs and alcohol in school and transactions of drugs as [small] as cigarettes and as major as bags of marijuana in school, or in cars ... before school," said senior class President Adam Atwell. He helped draft a proposal for Project TIPS with student senate President Meghan Malehorn.

"You don't even see kids joking about it anymore," Atwell said. "It's the way society is with drugs - they joke about it or about getting drunk somewhere or doing this and doing that. And we've definitely seen a drop in that here."

The initiative offers students up to $100 - from the student senate's coffers - for information that leads to an arrest or suspension. In its initial weeks, the program netted six arrests or suspensions for drug possession, setting toilet paper on fire in a boys bathroom and causing a false fire alarm.

The program and the payouts, which vary depending on the tip and the type of activity reported, also raised questions among educators, parents, students and others beyond the school community about the ramifications of paying students to police their hallways, and balancing those concerns with the need to keep classrooms safe.

Some worry that a climate of suspicion and snitching will lead to - rather than prevent - retaliation and school violence, while others insist that opening students' lines of communication about school safety is worth the price.

The board also expressed concern and last month asked the superintendent to assess the program and recommend what should be done with it. Principal Sherri-Le W. Bream appealed to the board to allow her students to present their evaluation.

But interim Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said nothing at last night's meeting about the program, and no board member asked for his assessment. School spokeswoman Carey Gaddis and Ecker's executive assistant, Dona Voitelle, indicated that the schools chief had not offered a recommendation and did not intend to do so.

Noting statistics from a survey of 10 percent of Westminster High's 2,340 students, the class leaders told the board that 61 percent expressed concern about school safety. Nineteen percent reported that they did not believe they were obligated to tell a teacher or administrator if they see drugs or weapons in school - a figure that junior class President Brendan Reed characterized as "a really scary number because that's a lot of kids who could know something and not tell."

Pressed to address paying for tips - a component that Malehorn acknowledged was "the icky part of it" - the students and Bream told the board they hope financial rewards become unnecessary as they develop a program to educate elementary and middle school pupils that it's OK to share information with administrators.

"In our society today, the government pays off people every day," Atwell said, drawing laughter from the room full of parents, students and school administrators. "So you don't need to look at it as we're paying people off. We're rewarding students for being a hero. I mean, if you give me $50 because I told you somebody had a shotgun, that makes me a hero. I don't care what you say, I could have just saved a couple people's lives."

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