A lunchroom food fight at a Howard County high school got so out of hand that the principal took an unusual step - promising a cash reward to anyone who would name names.
Wilde Lake High School Principal Restia Whitaker offered $30 for information on who participated in the December incident, which officials said quickly escalated to an unsafe, not to mention messy, situation.
It "was not just food being thrown. There were water bottles, trays and utensils," school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said yesterday. "It got to be very dangerous. Kids started running out of the cafeteria, and it got very chaotic and quite disruptive."
No reward money was paid to students, according to school officials. And now, after criticism from students, Howard school officials are taking a look at whether such offers are a good idea.
An assistant superintendent will discuss the practice at her monthly principals meeting, Caplan said yesterday.
"They'll discuss this and find out how often they've used it and how often it's helpful," the spokeswoman said. "Then they'll discuss whether it's something we want to develop procedures for or discontinue."
If it hasn't been effective, it might not be worth the effort, she said.
The opinion of students writing in the school paper, Paw Print, was clear.
"The need to assign blame to specific students for the food fight is having the unintended effect of immortalizing the incident," Katherine Driessen, editor in chief, wrote in a commentary.
In a statement released yesterday, Whitaker, the principal, 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."
Baltimore County schools allow cash rewards to citizens with information about school-related crimes if the school superintendent agrees, and in conjunction with county police. Spokespersons for school systems in Baltimore city and Anne Arundel and Carroll counties said they don't offer cash.
"We do not offer to pay kids money," said Steve Johnson, assistant superintendent of instruction in Carroll County.
In Howard County, cash rewards have been offered for information leading to those responsible for vandalism, graffiti or theft, Caplan said, adding that there is no policy on the practice.
The money comes from the Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies Program, which is designed to foster a safe and nurturing school environment, Whitaker wrote.
In his statement, the principal said the food fight took place Dec. 13. According to two students interviewed, and references in the school paper, it took place Dec. 12.
The menu for that day included chicken nuggets, burgers (plain, cheese or veggie), Philly cheesesteak and an assortment of salads and fruits.
Heath Thumel, 17, a senior, said he and friends were eating lunch when the food fight started.
"From somewhere behind me, a bagel sandwich came and landed all over me and my girlfriend and a couple other people," he said. "Then a couple of kids from our table turned and talked stuff back.
"The next thing I knew, cheeseburgers were flying, trays were flying. Everyone ran out of the cafeteria."
For the next week, Thumel said, students were dismissed from lunch one table at a time.
No one was seriously injured in the food fight, but at least two students were suspended, officials said.
Two days later, Whitaker put forth the reward offer.
Commentators in the student newspaper complained that the offer was offensive and inappropriate. Two of the writers incorporated their classroom work into the articles, comparing the reward to cash paid for escaped slaves under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
In his editorial, Alex Kolodner conceded that students largely ignore directions to clean up after they eat, but asked, "Isn't the administration's reaction blowing this whole thing out of proportion?"
He wrote some students have talked about staging walk-outs or sit-ins over the reward offers.
"A $30 offer might be tempting," student Paige Eckley wrote in her article. "But is it just?"
Sun reporters Gina Davis, Arin Gencer, Brent Jones and Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.