By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008
It was the second lunch period of the day at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County when the food began to fly.
Horseplay between a few friends escalated, and soon sandwiches, bagels, lettuce, drinks and foam trays were whizzing through the air. Two trash cans overturned, one spilling its contents. Students rushed out of the cafeteria as administrators rushed in.
No one got caught.
After two days, the culprits had not been apprehended, and Principal Restia Whitaker announced that he would give $30 in "crisp new bills" to students for each name of a perpetrator they provided.
That didn't go over well. "We were yelling. We erupted," said Alex Kolodner, a junior, describing the reaction in his physics class. "We were talking about walking out of the school."
There was no walkout after the Dec. 12 food fight, but an intense debate erupted within the Columbia school community over whether administrators should reward students for informing on misbehaving peers. Last month, the student newspaper, the Wilde Lake Paw Print, published three columns by students critical of the principal's offer.
"I find the administration's recent use of monetary incentives considerably more frightening than a food fight," wrote editor Katherine Driessen, a senior.
Rachel Whitcomb, a junior, was one of five students who filed a written complaint with the school administration hours after Whitaker's Dec. 14 announcement.
"We wanted our opinion to be heard," she said. "It was not okay to bribe us to turn in people."
Philip Soergel, a parent who complained to Howard schools administrators about the principal's offer, said: "We were aghast. I had never heard of this. Kids are getting these kinds of lessons in how to tattle on one another."
Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the school system, said paying students for information happens at a few Howard schools "a couple times a year." She said schools have offered rewards when working with the police in vandalism cases.
"We have no guidelines on it," she said. "It's just left up to the administrators if they feel the situation is serious enough to warrant this."
Kathryn Brod, president of the school's PTSA, said she encouraged unhappy parents to file "parent concern forms" provided online by the school system.
"This wasn't a criminal activity," Brod said of the food fight. "It was a juvenile prank."
Whitaker, in a faxed response to e-mailed questions from a reporter, said: "During an investigation, there are many different techniques that can be employed. The offering of monetary rewards in exchange for information during an investigation is just one of these techniques."
He said administrators met with students after the food fight "to look at some collaborative ways to ensure that our cafeteria and our school remain warm and inviting." He did not say whether any students had been suspended as a result of the incident or whether any students had been paid for information. Linda Long, a spokeswoman for Howard schools, said no money had been paid.
In a Dec. 19 letter to the Soergel family, Daniel J. Michaels, Howard's director of secondary administration, said offering rewards to identify miscreants who commit criminal or disruptive acts "is common in secondary schools."
But officials at neighboring school systems said they do not employ the practice.
"If it happens, it's certainly not something we would condone," said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County public schools. "We would not entice students to turn in their fellow students by offering rewards."
Maneka Wade, communications manager for Anne Arundel County schools, said, "We do not offer rewards of any kind." She said principals are not given discretion to pay students for information.
Prince George's County schools provide an anonymous tip line to phone in reports of wrongdoing, and the high schools have investigative counselors as confidential resources for students, said Tanzi West, a public information officer. But students are not paid for tips, she said.
Howard officials said they are going to take a closer look at the practice.
"What we're interested in finding out is: Has it been effective?" Caplan said. "If it has not been an effective technique, is it something we want to continue?"
Meanwhile, Wilde Lake administrators have ended a requirement -- imposed after the food fight -- that students remain seated in the cafeteria until dismissed from lunch.
And students continue to appraise the food fight's aftermath.
"It really blew up, and I think that shows how badly they handled it," said Taylor Procida, a junior. "It just made it worse."
Staff writer Joshua Zumbrun contributed to this story.