District elementary school teachers who forget to shut off the lights in empty classrooms are liable to be hit with stern warnings from a zealous group of student vigilantes.
They call themselves the Energy Patrol, dress in bright orange jackets with bright orange badges and tote official-looking clip boards. They roam school corridors in search of broken windows, leaky faucets, open doors and burned out light bulbs.
"I feel like a big man," said Jonathan Poole, a sixth-grader at Park View Elementary School, as he strolled down the first-floor corridor of the 75-year-old building in Northwest Washington. Unlike many of the other old schools in the District, the three-story building is in remarkably good shape.
Jonathan and two other students patrol the corridors every day, in the morning and after lunch. They make sure the main door is shut tight, windows are closed and the lights in every empty classroom are turned off.
As many as 1,000 pupils are on patrol in District elementary schools. And these youngsters aren't fooling around. The J.O. Wilson Elementary School, a 28-year-old building in Northeast, lowered its utility bills by $43,000 last year.
Principal Erma Fields credits the reduction to the school's energy patrol, which she said became so strict they even handed her a citation.
"I said, 'What's this?' And they said, 'Your office was not in use, but the lights were on.' "
Fields said children join the program because they want to feel important. "And when they write up a principal, you know they are feeling important."
Stanley Garnett, a custodian at Park View, said the patrollers regularly send him their checklist detailing what should be repaired in the circa 1916 building.
"They've pointed things out to me that I haven't been aware of," he said. And he fixes them.
Now with the war in the Persian Gulf, patrol members say their work is more vital than ever. Of special concern to them is the oil Iraq has dumped into the Persian Gulf. "All that money going out to sea," lamented Bernadette Woodland, 10.
The goals of the five-year-old program, which is funded by a $60,000 grant for packets and the jackets from the U.S. Department of Energy, are to lower schools' utility bills and to teach energy conservation to children so they will practice it at home, said Sharon Cooke, spokeswoman for the D.C. Energy Office.
A science teacher in each school is given the responsibility for organizing the patrols, but some schools don't have patrols because their teachers view them as "extra work," Cooke said.
There are a dozen patrol members at Park View, but science teacher Barry Sprague said there is a waiting list of 40 pupils who want to join.
"The children thirst for responsibility. Many times at home they don't get it," Sprague said. "They go for anything with a badge."