Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cheating at Chapel Hill High School

A story that is sparking a lot of discussion in my circles is this story about how Chapel Hill High School has uncovered what was apparently an ongoing cheating operation among some of their students. Somehow, students obtained a copy of the school's master key and were breaking into the school at night to get copies of tests and answer keys to tests. As the kids graduated, they turned the key over to other students. It's not clear how the students were caught, but recently the school had installed security cameras and had pictures of them entering the school.

When this story first broke Monday night, the people I discussed the issue with all assumed that the kids would be suspended and the schools would file criminal charges for breaking and entering. Other teachers and I thought that the school would be obliged to inform the colleges that the students had applied to that these students had been suspended. From something that had happened at our school, we had the impression that students must inform colleges if they have ever been suspended when they apply and if anything happens after they submitted an application that would change what they put on their application.

You have to understand that Chapel Hill High School has a very fine reputation academically. Chapel Hill is a relatively affluent community, definitely liberal, and quite proud of their flagship school.

But, from the press conference that the school gave on Tuesday, it is clear that they are not handling this scandal as my friends and I figured they would. First of all, the principal and school superintendent were not there and weren't talking to reporters. Then they announced that they had no plans to file criminal charges and that the kids had just been suspended for one to five days. And they aren't planning to inform the colleges that the students, all seniors, have applied to.
When asked why, Knott said school officials have focused on the students' breach of academic integrity and not on pursuing trespassing or breaking and entering charges. The possibility of criminal charges remains, she said.

Knott held a news conference Tuesday afternoon, facing questions about the discovery that some students had a master key to the school and claimed that other students had used it to cheat in years past. Superintendent Neil Pedersen did not attend the news conference, and efforts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Principal Jackie Ellis, who is leading the investigation, also did not attend the news conference. Efforts to reach Ellis on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Ellis sent e-mail messages to parents Thursday night sharing that the school had discovered that some students were passing down the master key from year to year. She also wrote that a larger group of students knew about the key and kept silent.

At the news conference, Knott said only four students had been disciplined. She couldn't say why students and a teacher at the school said they thought as many as 20 to 30 students were involved.

Knott said she wasn't aware of the school trying to contact former students about the accusations of cheating in prior years.
Clearly the school doesn't understand how to allay concerns in the community by sending out a spokesperson who actually knows anything about the case. Or perhaps sending out someone in authority to address the questions of the community.

They'll probably have to rethink not informing the colleges of what has happened. As the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, probably a school that many if not all of the students have applied to, makes clear that high schools and applicants are required to inform them if something like this has happened.
UNC-Chapel Hill obligates incoming freshmen to notify the admissions office of any disciplinary action taken after they've submitted their college applications.

"Your failure to do so will be grounds to deny or withdraw your admission, or to dismiss you after enrollment," the policy says.

Both the student and the school are required to provide a statement to the admissions office when a student is suspended, Stephen Farmer, vice provost and director of undergraduate admissions, wrote in an e-mail message.
Can you imagine how it tarnishes any student applying from Chapel Hill High if there is this cloud hanging over the school and the students as they apply to colleges and the universities know that the school won't inform them if those students have such serious disciplinary infractions on their records.

And how typical that they are handling this as an occasion to focus on honor and the students' lack of integrity rather on the fact that they broke the law by breaking into the school. Why not file criminal charges if they have the evidence from the security cameras. Send that messages to the student body that you're a school that takes such infractions quite, quite seriously.

But, apparently, cheating is a regular problem at the school.
A year ago, Jane Hannon, then a senior at Chapel Hill High School, wrote an article for the monthly school newspaper headlined "Cheating Plagues Chapel Hill High."

She wrote that cheating had become commonplace in her classes and that students were getting away with it.

"Somewhere along the line, between parents and teachers, administration and fellow students, ethics have collectively fallen through the cracks," Hannon wrote.

After her article ran across the top of the front page, Hannon said no teacher or administrator asked her about the cheating problem she was describing.

"I feel that it was seen and it was just neglected," she said.
Wow! I can't imagine the school administrators just ignoring such a blast in their school newspaper. How to inculcate an atmosphere of integrity at our school is something that we discuss both as a faculty and with our students every year. If a student wrote such a story for our paper, I can envision all the meetings and discussions that we'd be having with the students. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this story doesn't spark another scheduled round of such discussions among our faculty and students. Perhaps the Chapel Hill High administration was satisfied with their fine reputation and just didn't want to rock the boat. Well, they've learned otherwise now.

And Chapel Hill High is not alone. I'm sure that all sorts of cheating is going on across the country. Even at one of the more prestigious private schools in Los Angeles, they're confronting a cheating scandal.
Six sophomores were expelled and more than a dozen other students faced suspensions Tuesday in a cheating scandal that has rocked Harvard-Westlake, a top-tier Los Angeles private school with a national reputation for its academics.

Administrators said students conspired to steal Spanish and history tests by distracting teachers in their classrooms. The tests were then shown to several other students before midterm exams last month, said Harvard-Westlake President Thomas Hudnut.

The history department had become suspicious about the world and Europe II exams when several students scored exceptionally well. Then on Feb. 8, the department received an anonymous tip that cheating had occurred. Based on that report, several students were called to the dean's office and accused of being involved, while others came forward to confess, Hudnut said.

The six students accused of stealing the exams will not be allowed to return to the school. Students accused of viewing advance copies of the Spanish III and world history tests were suspended for varying lengths of time, Hudnut said.