The Hauser Junior High PTA may reconsider the way it provides for an emergency fund that can used at the discretion of the school’s principal, Joel Benton. The reason? There are some PTA members that have expressed unease about Benton’s practice of paying cash rewards for information that leads to the resolution of what Benton described as “major discipline cases.”
For the past several years, Benton has used cash as an incentive to break cases he deems urgent. At first, the money came out of his own pocket. Later, the money was drawn from a $500 emergency fund provided by the PTA each year.
Benton said that the rewards represent just a fraction of the total emergency funds used each year, but that he considers them critical for keeping the school a safe place for children to learn. Sometimes the reward is very small; other times it can be as much as $50.
“It’s used only in major discipline cases when there’s a high level of danger or security risk that threatens [the] 450 children [in the school],” Benton said. “It’s no secret, but it’s very rare. It’s the method I use when all else fails.”
But the practice has made some members of the Hauser PTA uncomfortable, and their protests have prompted Hauser PTA President Rebecca Wilson to reconsider the group’s support of those payments to students.
“Some parents support it, and some parents are adamantly against it,” Wilson said. “Our understanding is that it’s a very small amount of money. And because [Benton’s] reassured us of that, it has always been approved.
“But it’s something that needs to be under consideration,” she added, “and I’m seeking the wisdom and advice of moms and dads on it.”
It’s not an issue that will be settled immediately. Wilson said that the PTA sets its budget in September, which will allow for plenty of time to discuss the issue and come to a consensus on whether to continue providing money for the practice.
Benton acknowledged that the practice of paying students for information was unorthodox, but said he’s aggressive when it comes to cracking severe discipline cases. He said he’s used the practice in such instances as phoned-in bomb threats, theft and vandalism.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people think it’s controversial,” said Benton, who added that the PTA emergency fund has also been used to provide lunch money for students among other things. In at least one instance Benton said he gave a student money to purchase a Christmas gift for a parent.
“Much more money has gone for that type of thing,” Benton said.
Benton said that the practice was not used during a recent incident in which he and police spent hours trying to locate a student who had left school to meet a stranger for sex. But Benton was able to lure the 18-year-old man and the student back to the school later that day, by convincing her friends to call her by cell phone.
Police were able to track the whereabouts of the student, and the man was apprehended by police as he entered Riverside to drop off the girl at school.
“Most principals would not have developed a cell phone ruse,” Benton said. “They would have called the cops, sat back and prayed.”
District 96 Superintendent Dr. David Bonnette said he supports Benton’s methods “100 percent.”
“One of Joel Benton’s strengths is that if there’s an infraction of some type, whether it’s theft, kids picking on other kids, destruction of property, fighting or instigating … in almost every instance, he solves them,” Bonnette said.
“There’s no greater deterrent to misbehavior than correcting it and having an effective discipline program,” he said.
Bonnette said that while he has not personally received any complaints about the practice, he could see where it might raise some eyebrows. Nevertheless, he defended the rewards.
“There may be some people that object to it,” he said. “But if their kid was victimized and we didn’t deal with it, they’d be the first to call and complain about that.
“It’s preferred that everyone does the right thing,” Bonnette added. “But if that were always the case, then we wouldn’t have to worry about discipline at all.”
Dahlia Lietuvninkas, a member of the Hauser PTA, has expressed her displeasure of the practice with both PTA members and Benton. Rather than a positive example, she said rewarding children with cash sends the wrong message.
“There are a ton of parents who are unhappy about it,” she said. “What is the message? We teach our children to be strong and to stick to principles, but that when we can’t do anything else, then we use cash. We’re sacrificing our principles and teaching the wrong thing.”
Should the PTA attempt to approve the use of PTA money for the rewards, Lietuvninkas said she will attempt to rally parents to block it.