cheating: who's really at fault

Will Gillette '22

        I pledge that I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. It’s almost a daily occurrence at Saint Stephen’s and St. Agnes that we come across this phrase. This phrase, known as the Honor Code, is an integral part of our schools disciplinary system. But, despite its constant repetition in our community, cheating seems to be a prevalent issue in our community- especially in our digital age. 

        In modern society, there seems to be endless avenues to unfairly secure a higher grade. Primarily, the year on Zoom allowed for newfound freedom for students. Without having the stress or fear of teachers peering over our shoulders, at times it seemed we could get away with anything. In fact, a study concluded that 93% of administrators surveyed think that students are much more likely to cheat during online school. This staggering percentile of teachers feeling mistrust shows how much of a problem cheating was during online school. But what really are the consequences of cheating?

         As students, we are biased in our view of the consequences as we often see cheating as a low risk for a big reward. In an age of perfection, students can't help but have thought of cheating at one point or another. Trying to put this bias aside, I sat down with Dean McGuire to shed light on possible consequences of cheating that us students might not think about.   

         I knew there would be a divide in how students vs. teachers view cheating, but right away Ms. McGuire started to warp my mind. She told me she thinks of the honor code as something we should be striving to achieve, not necessarily as a rule code. Throughout our conversation, she was constantly referencing her belief that highschoolers are going to make mistakes saying she “understands kids that take risks trying to figure things out, I understand that entirely.” She believes that it's an inevitable aspect of the high school experience, and even more, can actually be beneficial if one can extract lessons from consequences responsibly. And the most important part of her job is to act as a meditator on behalf of the students and help students learn from their mistakes to grow. She isn't actually a judge, constantly on the lookout to strike next, but rather a support figure noting that she sees herself as the “dean for students, not dean of.”

          Despite Dean McGuire's supportive stance, cheating still remains a problem in academia. But why? I sent out a survey to the student body to understand how students view cheating. I started with a general question asking “in the broadest sense of terms, have you ever cheated at SSSAS?” While there are many nuances to the severity of the act, all cheating nonetheless violates the honor code. Out of 60 responses, 73% percent of students said they have cheated at least once throughout their career. This high percentage raises a question: how, and just as importantly-why, should we combat this clearly apparent problem in our community?

          I used the rest of the survey to dig deeper into the students psyche regarding cheating. I asked students how often they think of the consequences of/when cheating, and used a scale from 1-5 (one being not worried, five being very worried) to assess the students' anxiety about consequences. The results were pretty even across the board; the most selected level of anxiety was a  ⅖ at 27% and the lowest level was 5/5 at 15%. The data shows that the majority of students acknowledge the consequences, but still cheat nonetheless. The middle point, ⅗, comes in at second showing that fear of consequences is a factor in students deciding to cheat or not. This concludes that while students understand there are consequences, ultimately it doesn't prevent them from not cheating. This could be because the reason to cheat is too overpowering; a reason so strong that it disregards any thought of consequences.

           I asked students what the main reasons were for cheating, giving them three options and an “other” choice. The three options I gave, also in order of popularity, were “pressure for grade,” “last minute stress,” and “difficult assignments.”

           Recently, controversy has arisen over how SSSAS deals with punishments. Cheating has been more apparent recently, as Dean McGuire remarks. While some recent punishments may seem harsh, Saint Stephen’s actually has a methodical penalty policy for cheating. Ms. McGuire remarked that in the other schools she worked at, punishments are much harsher compared to Saint Stephans. Furthermore, McGuire supports SSSAS’ forgiveness policy. She notes that there is a lot of context that goes into choosing a penalty.

           However, Ms. Hardwick said at her high school that cheating would often result in a three-week suspension, and while admitting this sentence seemed extreme, is in support of stricter punishments. Ms. Hardwick justifies her viewpoint by saying that firstly, cheating is a wrongdoing, and secondly, the lengthy sentence stopped her and many peers from cheating in the first place. 

            On the other hand, Ms. McGuire thinks that the “3 strike” policy at SSSAS is more beneficial than stricter punishments. She understands that high schoolers are still learning their way in the world, and believes that high school is the best place to learn from your mistakes. Part of this trial and error process that she believes is important for one's growth is having a more forgiving punishment policy. 

           But how does the school exactly determine punishments? While we do have a set of codes and rules, cheating is often more nuanced because of how subjective it is. For example, copying a low stakes homework assignment versus an exam, or a first time offense versus a third. This gray area can sometimes be confusing and hard to judge, especially as students inevitably question their punishments. Ms. McGuire comments on this, saying “I love the gray areas.” It’s her job to understand the situation from the students point of view, and this gray area allows her to do so. It allows for important factors like precedence and honesty to be taken into account. 

          While this gray area is used in decision making from a relativist point of view, Ms. Hardwick still thinks that all cheating is a violation of one very important thing- integrity. She says “it's hard, on one level I see it as it’s all about your integrity, no matter the assignment, but we also live in a world of morally gray areas.” She acknowledges that every cheating scandal is differentiable and should be accounted for as such, but would like more consistency in punishments. 

           Mr. Taylor also believes that the somewhat ambiguous school code has led to conflicting punishments. While Mr. Taylor supports our schools forgiving policy, he notes that consistency and forgiveness are attainable and are things our school needs to work for. 

           On the other hand, the HDB has a stronger emphasis on helping advise the students. From Nellie Hartell, a senior HDB member, their job is to “help and advise and guide students, especially young ones, to understand what they did wrong and reach a position where they won't feel like they have to cheat.” While they don't really have much as much say in the punishments, “we do give insight to whether we think the student has really grown throughout the HDB process.” While the HDB acknowledges that for young students visiting them can somewhat be of a punishment in itself, they really are there to “advise and advocate for the student.” 

          Finally, I interviewed a student, a serial cheater some might say, to get a student perspective on our punishment policy. This student has had a history of cheating, which seems to support the poll data that our decisions aren't really a deterrent. When asked about this, the student admitted that their punishments have not been a deterrent because they “know they will be ok.” However, a recent punishment that consisted of so many clauses and limitations, was so extravagant that it shocked this student. Their punishment included a 5-day suspension, continued probation, them not being allowed to leave school (even turning in their keys on arrival), and no access to the senior lounge. I asked the student to talk about their reaction, and they said candidly that they would have rather been expelled. While this reaction might be a little naive because of the lack of time for reflection, there is some truth in this statement. 

          Going back to what Ms. McGuire noted, highschool should be a place for experimentation and growth. Having this time in our youth to decide one's own moral compass is a necessary part of being human. However, at what point does our forgiveness policy become so flexible to a point of being irrelevant and erratic?