High school is filled with stress from homework to projects to tests and, of course, extracurriculars on top. For Mark Green*, the pressure was too much and the temptation to cheat on his final seemed like a good idea. Or was it?
Schools have created honor codes in hopes of preventing lying and cheating, technology helps hinder this behavior.
Every year, ESD students gather in the chapel at the beginning of the school year to sign the Honor Code; the core of which is Honor, Respect and Integrity. Cheating, or giving oneself an unfair advantage over peers, is strictly forbidden by the Honor Code.
“I think that the ESD culture is that there is an Honor Code and people sign [it],” Head of Upper School Henry Heil said. “Teachers use best practices in the classroom to take away temptations from students and that students cheat when they feel great pressure and they have an opportunity. That’s not ESD related. That’s anywhere in the country, and that’s life too.”
When a teacher suspects a student of cheating, they must first gather proof. Once the evidence is collected, the teacher talks to Assistant Head of Upper School Jeff Laba and calls in the student for a conversation. Laba then meets privately with the student and informs him or her that the case will be heard before the Honor Council AP Physics teacher Matthew Varvir has taken students to the council and said it is stressful for everyone involved.
“I would say a lot of the time when this comes up, I have fairly strong suspicions,” Varvir said.” On one hand, you want the student to do what you think is best. It would be great if they just openly tell you, ‘yes, I did this, I shouldn’t have done that.’ If a student is very forthright like that, we [still] would go to the Honor Council, but that goes a long way, even for the Honor Council — admitting goes a long way.”
According to Laba, the teacher ultimately has the decision whether or not to send the case to the Honor Council.
“If they decide not to go to the Honor Council, then they can’t punish the student for cheating,”Laba said. “Only the Honor Council can do that. A teacher can’t [punish cheating] on their own. So once they [decide], they inform me.”
The Honor Council is an organization run by student-elected members. There are three representatives from each class, and the student body president is also a member. These members decide the case’s veredictand consequences. Upper school librarian Mary Jo Lyons is the faculty advisor to the Honor Council.
“I love that the students are empowered; they have the power to do this,” Lyons said. “It’s their honor. They run that trial. My role as the advisor in hearing is only to sit and observe and answer if they have a procedural question or if I see they’re getting stuck on something. But I’m not part of the conversation. I’m not helping them deliberate or discuss what’s going on, and I love that.”
The students on the Honor Council do not know any details about the case before they meet on the morning of the trial. First, Laba comes into the room with the faculty member who brought the incident to the Honor Council and explains the case to the students. Then, the teacher explains their perspective and presents evidence. The Council has the ability to ask the teacher questions.
“I’ve taken several students to the Honor Council over the years, and I think they’re less likely to cheat again because they see what a serious thing it is, especially if they’re found guilty,” Head of the History Department Mary Hansell said. “I think the students that have never gone do not understand how serious it is and how the consequences can be severe as well. I think that maybe needs to be better communicated so that students understand the consequences.”
After the teacher leaves the room, the Council discusses the case. The student is called in and stands in front of the Council and explains their perspective on the case.
“Talking to the Honor Council was kind of stressful,” student Rose Pierce* said. “I plead guilty to cheating, and it was pretty short overall. I think [the] Honor Council is a good process, but I didn’t really enjoy going, obviously.”
Lastly, the council discusses the verdict and gives a recommendation for a disciplinary action or consequence.
“I think it’s good leverage to have [a student-run Honor Council],” sophomore Honor Council member Parmida Zandinejad said. “I want to emphasize that we’re on the student’s side, and we understand as students where you guys are coming from and the pressure that you have in your lives. So we’re not out to get you in any way.”
If the student is found guilty and still believes they are innocent, they have 24 hours to appeal to Heil. They can also appeal if they believe their punishment was too harsh.
“Nothing [is] at all unique about cheating at ESD,” Heil said. “I think what’s unique about ESD is the way that our Honor Council is structured. It’s one of the most effective and impressive Honor Council structures I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with quite a few. If there is uniqueness in ESD’s system, it’s more about the students’ engagement and the students’ ownership of it rather than the adults’ ownership of it. I think that’s really important.”
But not all believe that the disciplinary actions given after someone is found guilty of cheating or lying are as serious as they should be.
“What seems to have been the case is [that] the [Honor Code] has been compromised without any kind of consequence,” upper school math teacher Mike Beidel said. “I can think of recent examples of that where you have kids who really have compromised or violated the code of the community, and what they get is ‘you better not do that again’ versus something substantial in consequence for what it is that they’ve done in violation of the code of the community.”
With sweaty hands and an anxious temperament, Rose Pierce* looks at the cheat sheet she smuggled in under her skirt for answers during a test. This detrimental decision was an accumulation of multiple factors: not studying the night before, feeling pressure from parents and teachers to receive better grades and fear of the consequences of earning a poor grade.
When highly pushed by extrinsic factors, this student engaged in an act of academic cheating by taking a cognitive shortcut. And while cheating is sorely looked down upon for its overall harmful effects on the student and the school, at times, the thought process or reasons behind why a student has cheated is not taken into account.
“I felt pressured to get an A, and the only way I could do that was by cheating,” Pierce said. “I think most kids, like I did, cheat because of the pressure parents or teachers put on them to get good grades.”
Other circumstances that could lead to a student cheating may be when the line between getting a good grade and working to learn the material blurs. Common traits such as poor study habits, an extremely high-stakes assignment or test or a low expectation of success may all lead to cheating.
But cheating does not only happen in high school. A research study conducted on students beginning in 1990 and still continues today by Dr. Donald McCabe, who is widely considered the “founding father” of academic integrity and graduated from Rutgers University, shows that more than 60 percent of university students openly admit to academic cheating in some form.
“I think a lot of students cheat in minor ways because they don’t even think about it as bad if it’s smaller,” Pierce said. “For example, it’s normalized to just look up something you don’t know on Google or to ask a friend about it. It’s the major cases that get sent to the Honor Council, but small stuff gets by a lot.”
Since the work one turns in at school is expected to be a reflection of one’s effort and is consequently graded with this supposition, cheating can devastate the system that schools need to run on. Zandinejad believes that cheating is a fundamentally unfair practice but also understands the pressures an average student faces.
“As a student myself, and I think for everyone, it would be unfair if someone took the easy way out while you were up all night studying,” Zandinejad said. “There’s a lot of pressure for us in high school, and it’s completely understandable that when kids have a couple of tests all at once, they’re stressed out with sports and they’re overwhelmed, they want to take the easy way out.”
While the reasons behind why a student cheats are sometimes passed over, the Honor Council strives to focus on the student and give out just consequences that match the “crime.”
“The Honor Council has the ability to adjust the student’s punishment based on certain situations,” Zandinejad said. “We have decreased punishments, and we’ve also added on punishments, but I think that that’s a nice aspect.”
This system is beneficial because schools, especially private ones, may naturally foster a competitive environment that can lead students to be tempted to cheat. Heil highlights the importance of having an Honor Code to maintain the integrity of students in accordance with the code.
“Research shows that having an Honor Code reduces cheating,” Heil said. “That’s just as a baseline. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it reduces it. Every school I’ve been at in my career has had an Honor Code, and understanding and reevaluating other councils with our process is really important. We’re always reevaluating to make sure that we’re doing it right and doing it as well as we possibly can.”