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Turning Schoolchildren Into Informants Carries Risks : Students who tell on others and earn cash rewards face possible reprisals. They may not be aware of the hidden dangers.

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Violence now rivals academics as the top concern about the nation’s public schools. Shootings, stabbings and other serious assaults are increasing in number. In November, the National League of Cities reported an increase in school violence after surveying 700 communities. U.S. Department of Education officials say the federal government must help schools create safe environments as a prerequisite to academic reform.

In all the discussion on how to make schools safer, parents probably never believed they would see their children encouraged to become paid informants. But it’s an emerging trend that has reached the Antelope Valley, where I live.

Last week the board of the Antelope Valley Union High School District amended and readopted a 2-month-old rule that lets administrators give $25 cash rewards to kids whose tips lead to the confiscation of drugs or weapons. The policy was expanded to reward turning in anyone who breaks a federal, state or local law or school district rule. For vandalism, the maximum payout was raised to $1,000 and the board said it might authorize more in special cases.

The board said the guilty students or their families will be held liable for the reward money.

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School officials and some parents are enthusiastic about the rewards, but a little voice in the back of my head says we had better watch out. We are casting students in the role of quasi-security guards and paid tipsters without regard to the life-and-death ramifications of such actions.

A paid informant typically is motivated by gain--not the common good. The last time I checked, they still got high marks on the loathing chart.

Informing on someone often carries severe consequences. Two examples come to mind. Earlier this year, three affluent high school seniors in Orange County were convicted for the premeditated murder of a friend they believed was going to spill the beans on a for-kicks robbery. They beat him with a baseball bat, poured rubbing alcohol down his throat and taped his mouth so that he would choke on his vomit. And a 12-year-old Los Angeles boy was shot to death just before he was to testify against a youth he had identified in a homicide case. His father thought he was being a good citizen and had encouraged him to testify. Now the family is suing the Police Department and the city for failing to protect the youth and inform them of the danger.

It seems to me that the school district is using children as an extension of its security force, making them the first line of defense against crime--an untrained, unarmed and naive defense. Is anyone telling students that being an informant can get ugly and scary?

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Telling on another student is done under a promise of confidentiality. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan, and promises of confidentiality are just that--promises that may or may not be kept. For example, would the promise be kept by a judge if one side or the other in a trial demanded the informant’s name? Would informants be immune from legal action for deliberately giving false tips? Should they be?

Call me old-fashioned and out of touch, but I really thought students went to school to learn both academic and social skills, not to become the paid eyes and ears of district officials.

In the old gangster movies, the informant always met with some unglamorous end. Unfortunately in real life, the same is often true. And then there is the issue of the values we are teaching by using money to gain information on fellow students today. Whom tomorrow? Teachers, administrators, parents?

Not everyone associated with the school district is behind the informant policy. Dave Kennedy, president of the district’s teachers union, has said, “We’re not teaching students to be good citizens. We’re urging them to be paid informants. This further clouds what should be a simple message, and that is a clear statement against weapons and drugs.”

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Most adults wouldn’t become informants for $25, or $1,000. Why should we lure children into this dangerous game?


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