Thursday, April 14, 2005

Pay-per-snitch - will these programs keep drugs and guns out of schools?

To snitch or not to snitch. That is the question and one we've posed to over 80 thousand students throughout Texas over the last few years. And, a matter taken up by a Rome Georgia high school recently when they announced a new pay-per-snitch program.

Since the inception of the ChooseToCare program I have been against reward based tip line programs. My belief is that this sends the wrong message to students who ought to be taught to do something simply because it is the "right thing". And, in a system where character education falls short or is largely ineffective, intentionally sending a message that does nothing to advance the concept of civic duty appears repugnant to me.

In Rome (Georgia) Model High School educators have not only adopted a pay for information policy, but they have established a bargain basement bill of fare to incent students to talk. According to the Associated Press, students will be paid $10.00 for theft related information, $25. to $50. to dime a drug dealer, and up to $100.00 for guns or serious felonies. Fittingly, funding will be derived from candy and soda vending machine proceeds.

I have administered tip-line programs for over 30 years. During this time I have run several "dime a thief" type programs. In all, I've issued maybe $3000. in awards during that time. Curiously, the programs that were reward driven were the most negatively perceived and and netted the least results. Most people who have provided credible tips have done it for reasons other than the reward. Many of the people I dealt with turned down the reward, some truely offended by the notion of being offered one. The vast majority of folks who have provided information were wholly unaware that an award was available when they provided the information. In fact, I've had to push money into the hands of some informants who I knew could really use the cash. Many of the people I've dealt with in my career have been young people - juveniles ranging from 16 - 18 years old. In the business environment I came to view pay-for-tip programs as sometimes handy, if not unnecessary. In the school environment I believe them to be contrary to what we should be teaching our kids and to what any quality ethics program ought to be about.

ChooseToCare's School Safety & Drug Assessment Survey addresses the important issue of what motivates students to or prevents students from breaking the code of silence. And believe me, one exists in every school. Sadly, only 43% of students say they would report a security concern even when they believed it could harm them or someone they knew. The majority of students (57%) would hesitate to make a report for a variety of reasons. Almost 24% of students wouldn't tell for fear that others might find out. And this is where a school district can make a significant impact on the student code of silence. Twenty percent of all students say they would report a student safety issue only if they could be anonymous! Add this to the 43% of students who would report a safety concern and you have tipped the scales in favor of student safety in your district.

The majority of kids who are reluctant to pass on critical information are afraid. They are afraid of physical harm, being ostracized, and being known as a a "narc". But more importantly, these fears are predicated on the perceived risk that their involvement will be found out. And this is where reward programs fail as a sole strategy. Students perceive that reward based programs are not truely anonymous. They know, to begin with, that the telephone number of the phone from which their call was made will likely appear on the phone bill of the agency administering the pay-for-information program. They also know that there is some risk attached to the reward payment process which usually reqiures that you present yourself in person in order to receive your reward. This is a skepticizm we have heard repeatedly during our student focus group sessions and one I believe is rooted in a general distrust of the "adult system".

Add the ability to be truely anonymous and we find that about 63% of students say they would make a report. How to reach the remaining 37% is a question worth investigating. Perhaps some would be reached by initiating an ethics program that stressed "doing the right thing for the right reason". A proper ethics program might make a difference with the 10% of the student population that simply "don't want to get involved". Or, the 5% of students who believe nothing would ever be done based upon their report. Or, even the 4.8% who would be afraid to make a report out of fear of being wrong. A quality tip line that is properly promoted as part of a strong character education program (ethics) could truely make a difference in reaching some of these students.

The most popular arguement I have heard from pay-per-snitch proponants is the "just one gun" arguement. If the program gets just one gun out of a school it was worth it. But if this is the only strategy and it is implemented absent the character education which I believe has the potential to reach far more students than those motivated by purely mercenary values, than the harm the message sends outweighs the benefit. A similar arguement was presented in support of an MTV sponsored hot line some states have unfortunately adopted. When this program was presented to the state of Texas for use as a statewide program, I argued that MTV was an innappropriate vehicle for the effort because of the questionable messages it sends to kids. I believed then as I do now that the effort was more an attempt by MTV to improve their image than a true effort to impact school safety. Yet, the "just one gun" arguement was presented by some administrators in support of the program. Luckily, more level heads prevailed.

As I mentioned I have used reward money in conjunction with tip lines before. I'm not opposed to offering money for tips so long as it is not presented as the marquis motivator on which the program is based. But unfortunately, some school districts have adopted such approaches because it is easier than teaching students why, particularly after Columbine and Red Lake, they should be concerned about their safety and the safety of others around them. I think it is important to understand, however, just who educators are reaching (notwithstanding the "just one gun" arguemet) with pay-per-snitch programs. Recently, I enhanced the School Safety & Drug assessment survey to query students about the extent to which they might be motivated by rewards for information. We will be able to compile the survey data to determine if there are material differences in the responses of urban, suburban and rural students. When I think I have sufficient data from which to draw conclusions I'll be happy to publish the results. In the meantime I will be following the Rome model to see just how the disarmament is going.

In a time when many schools have adopted pay-for-grade programs I can understand why some believe that cash awards may be the quick and easy path to success. One administrator offered that cash removes the value judgement from the decision to "snitch". I guess the message is that doing it for the money has truely become the American why. As we quietly slip and slide towards a non judgemental society my advice to the Romans is to load your vending machines with something more profitable than snacks. You'll need that revenue as the market forces the price of information higher than ten bucks a pop.


At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great article. I've passed this on to my school district's Director of Student Services! Keep up the good work and I'm interested in knowing the survey results.


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