Topic: Professions & Institutions

Corrupting All Students to Save a Few

School administrators who cannot see the blatant ethical problems in programs that pay students for disclosing misconduct by fellow students are frighteningly unqualified to be involved in education at all. Their grasp of basic ethical principles is primitive to the point of confusion. It may well be futile to try to explain to such ethically-challenged individuals why these increasingly popular local programs are such a terrible idea, the perfect example of a social “cure” that is worse than the disease.

But please, if this is proposed in your community, try anyway.

The latest school shooting in Minnesota has prompted increased enthusiasm for these programs, which pay $100 to $500 to students who alert school officials about violations involving theft, drugs, vandalism or firearms, according to a front page story in USA Today. Apparently the idea comes from a national operation called Student CrimeStoppers, founded in 1983.

Stephen Huffstetler, the principal at Cherryville High School in rural Gaston County, N.C., has a quote that is as revealing as it is chilling. He states that the bonus program instituted two years ago at his school “has really worked well… This year, we’ve given out $1,100. For $100, [the students will] turn their mothers in.”

Well, there’s something to be really proud of, right Principal Huffstetler?

Schools are supposed to be teaching students responsibility, accountability, and courage, all of which are undermined by paying students to do what they should want to do out of a developed sense of ethical duty. Let’s look at this ill-considered policy closely:

  • Though educators should teach students that they need to develop the ethical instinct to the right thing for its own sake, giving them money sends the message that “doing the right thing” is not a sufficient reward in itself.
  • If a student does not believe that turning in a fellow student (or, uh, his mother) is the right thing to do, but in fact wrong, such school policies encourage students to put their principles up for sale to the highest bidder. Judas, for example, betrayed Jesus for money. Principal Huffstetler would apparently approve.
  • Meanwhile, students in other school districts that do not pay for tip-offs will be made to feel like chumps and suckers. After all, why do something for free when others get paid for it?
  • The payment turns conduct that should be seen as responsible citizenship into an act of venal betrayal. Offending students can always claim, and correctly, that they were turned in “for money,” not because they deserved to be turned in. By paying for the act of reporting harmful conduct, an otherwise ethical act is robbed of its ethical nature.
  • Since the bonus program puts the emphasis on cash rewards, it is bound to spawn unscrupulous students who look for other students to report for profit, even to the point of manufacturing offenses.
  • It also encourages bidding wars. If schools will pay students $100 to report their friends and acquaintances, it won’t take long for students at risk of being reported to pay competitive amounts for assurances of silence.
  • Meanwhile, the entire concept of these programs is a demonstration of distrust of students, and a belief that they are incapable of doing the right thing without added monetary incentive. As educators know, students tend to live up to, or down to, expectations.
  • It is a simple principle: if one is doing something for the money, it is not motivated by ethics. If something is being done out of ethical concerns, then money is irrelevant.

These programs arise out of bankrupt imaginations and inept school management. Preventing school violence, crime and drug use requires alert educators and administrators, responsible parenting, effective teaching and timely intervention, not the creation of a generation of junior bounty hunters. The long-term problems that are certain to grow out of our schools abandoning their commitment to encouraging and fostering ethical values in our America’s youth in favor of celebrating cash-inspired informants will dwarf the societal harm of an occasional Columbine, horrible though it might be. A generation that is taught that you must be paid to do the right thing will come to believe that the wrong thing is an acceptable course when nobody is footing the bill.

It is crucial that parents, teachers, school administrators and law enforcement officials do not abandon the only way to create a better, fairer, more civil society in the future in favor of the pragmatically amoral and facile approach of paying students to be informers. Young people who learn to be ethical and realize that doing so is the way to live a satisfying and productive life, not just a way to make fast cash, are our best hope for advancing civilization. The Student CrimeStoppers model will corrupt a generation to prevent a handful of tragedies.

This is a lazy, desperate, and disastrous strategy, and an unethical one.

Postcript: The Ethics Scoreboard cannot leave this topic without expressing its disgust at USA Today‘s insidious and biased use of language to cover the story. Throughout the article, writer Larry Copeland uses terms like “tattling,” “snitches” and “fingering” to characterize the conduct of reporting threats or crimes on the part of fellow students. Copeland obviously believes that it is the conduct that’s wrong, and he is both misguided in thinking so and unethical in letting his bias dictate his choice of words. Contrary to the clear implication of Copeland’s writing, reporting a fellow student who may be planning to shoot up a school is not disreputable conduct. Expecting someone to pay you before you’ll do it is.


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