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Instant cash - at school?

John Sirvaitis had lost his chemistry textbook and needed the money before class to pay for a new one. He didn't have cash, but breathed a sigh of relief when he remembered his school had recently installed an automatic teller machine (ATM).

His high school in West Linn, Ore., joins a growing number of high schools with ATMs. The Illinois-based Teen Research Unlimited surveyed 2,000 youths across the country and found that one in 200 of those ages 12 to 15 had access to a cash machine at school. The number increased to one in 50 among those ages 16 to 17. The survey also found that 17 percent of teens had a debit card, up from 12 percent in 2000.

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For schools, installing an ATM can be a lucrative business. At Gresham High School, another Oregon school with an ATM, students conducted 140 transactions last month. At a charge of $1 per transaction, the school will own the machine in two years - and will begin making money on the transactions after that time, estimates principal Paul Boly.

Not all students, parents, and school district personnel, however, approve of the ATMs. Some kids feel that it encourages rampant consumerism. Molly Doyle, an editorial writer at Oregon City High criticized her school's decision to install the machine. "I don't think it belongs in a school setting," wrote Molly, saying that the machine is next to an area where snacks and lattes are purchased. "We're here for an education, not for buying things."

In West Linn, the city with the highest median household income in Oregon, many students at West Linn High School are concerned that they are expected to grow up too fast. "We're only in high school, so why do we need an ATM right now in school?" asks Jane Lyons, a junior. "I feel that too much responsibility is being pushed on us."

Some kids feel that the machines - where transactions cost $1.50 each - are divisive. "There are so many kids that aren't as rich as other kids and the ATM puts barriers between us," says Rebecca Immel, a junior. "It separates us into two groups: the people that get to use the ATM because they have enough money from their parents, or a job, to open an account, and the kids whose mom gives them just enough money for lunch."

School board trustee Carl Simpson, in the West Quebec School District in Canada, has received calls from parents who are worried about how it might be misused. "I agree with parents who feel harassment might increase."

He has other concerns, too. "I don't think we should be taking money from students' pockets."

But at Oregon City High School, principal Carol Kemhus likes the convenience. "Our school is a small city of 2,300 students and staff, and we have a 'closed campus' policy where students can't go off campus at lunchtime," says Ms. Kemhus. "More students than ever, and many staff, have ATM cards. It made sense for people to access their money while at school, since many of them are here from 7 a.m. until late in the evening."

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Brent Leong teaches accounting at Oregon City High and argues that the ATM is also a learning experience. Accounting students at the school run and manage the ATM, and are able to learn about ATMs and financial institutions. He also sees numerous other pluses. "Many activities, from wrestling camps to basketball tournaments and school theatrical performances, happen here and having an ATM has benefited those who have needed money and did not want to leave the campus to get cash," says Mr. Leong.

Four of six high schools in the Vancouver School District in Washington have recently installed ATMs, and transactions there are free. Ed Little, principal at Skyview High School in Vancouver, says it helps give his students access to funds if they forget to ask their parents. "I haven't encountered any drawback so far," says Mr. Little.

When Gresham High initially considered the machines, the staff had questions about vandalism. "Nobody knew what to expect," says Daryl Grove of GoodVantage Resources, who sold the machine to Gresham High. "But so far there haven't been any reports of vandalism."

He says it helps that the machine is in full view of a security camera and is bolted to the concrete floor.

Despite concerns about vandalism, consumerism, and divisions between students, most students and staff are positive about the ATMs. "And," says Little, "far fewer students need to borrow money from me."