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Cheating puts school policies to test

Posted: July 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Sometimes, crib sheets make their way from knee-high socks onto desks. Illicit iPhone photos can instantly pass answers among students.

“I would say about 55 percent of kids cheated at one time or another,” said recent Canyon High grad William Santiago.

“It’s almost like second nature,” he added. “Students are utilizing ways now that teachers haven’t even conceived of thinking of yet. It’s not just writing on your hand anymore.”

Cheating is something that can’t be tolerated within the William S. Hart Union High School District. On that, district officials agree.

But the issue of how it can be dealt with sparked an hourlong debate between the superintendent and the board at a recent district meeting. 

The talk came about after one of Santiago’s former teachers, Linda Storli, was told by district officials she couldn’t enforce a rule in her government class at Canyon High: Cheat on the final, you will fail the class.

“I have (the rule) on my website, and on the board in permanent ink,” said Storli, who’s been with the district 27 years. “It’s been there for nine years.”

Crime and punishment

Storli added the rule after she caught a student cheating on her final. And it hasn’t happened again, until this year, she said.

But, Hart district Superintendent Rob Challinor felt that, according to the state’s education code, the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“Cheating has been on a steady increase in high schools and colleges because there are no serious consequences for cheating,” Challinor said.

“In this instance, I find it hard to believe that we would fail a student for one course in which an infraction was made on one specific activity, whether it be an exam or a project, and yet, a student can bring a gun to school, and not fail,” he said.

The debate

Santiago spoke on behalf of Storli’s policy during the discussion, after he went to several board meetings with a friend, the pair sporting T-shirts they made as a show of support for Storli’s rule.

The policy stopped plenty of students from cheating, Santiago explained to the board. It was well-communicated, and no one wanted to risk failing a class that was required for graduation, the 17-year-old said.

But it wasn’t a question of efficacy for Vicki Engbrecht, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Hart district, who said the policy couldn’t be supported.

“Course grades, by (California Education Code), are supposed to be a reflection of a student’s mastery of content, not behavior,” Engbrecht said. “And this is clearly a behavior.”

But that’s where things get fuzzy, Hart District Board President Gloria Mercado-Fortine said.

“What we found out is that we have a vague policy,” Mercado-Fortine said. “And that the (state’s) code is vague on (academic dishonesty).”

Further discussion failed to crystallize a solution. The fact that there are no grades for behavior in high school was mentioned. And that a teacher has no academic recourse in that situation, except for a grade.

At one point, the superintendent and other board members agreed the principal at each school site should be the ones making decisions on whether a teacher’s policy is fair.

Officials also discussed the potential process for adding a line to the code that would clarify the matter in the future, perhaps formally giving final consent to a principal, with a policy change.

However, board member Steve Sturgeon followed that by asking Engbrecht what would happen if Storli’s policy was adopted districtwide because it was shown to be very effective.

“I could not support using a grade as a penalty,” she replied. “Whether it works or not, it runs contrary to all the research and all of the training, over the last five years on grading practices, on reducing D and F grades, on making kids feel more successful.”

Broader lesson

Research also show that cheating is a widespread problem. A national poll of 12,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported that nearly three-quarters of students admitted to cheating on an exam.

But the policy in discussion is a preventive measure, not a punitive one, Storli said. She said she didn’t want to have to follow through with it, but teaching an understanding of consequences is as much a part of her job as the Civil War and the Constitution.

For Sturgeon, who said he hasn’t dealt with any issue like this in his 12 years on the board, the district’s current policy potentially puts students and the district at a loss, because it’s unclear.

And the talk didn’t seem to resolve the issues of policy consistency and adherence to the state’s education code for Challinor, either.

Challinor posed a different hypothetical question. If this policy comes up again, what’s a principal to do knowing the board feels one way on the issue and the superintendent another? A principal shouldn’t have to deal with conflicting instruction, Challinor contended.

Mercado-Fortine wrapped up the discussion by stating that the board supports Storli’s policy and encourages administrators and teachers to work out such issues at their respective sites.

Sturgeon acknowledged the need for a certain degree of flexibility as well, citing precedent and the need to teach lessons in a broader context.

“I think teachers have softened, the districts have softened, too, in order to, address our at-risk issues, and to help kids be more successful,” Sturgeon said.

“But from a disciplinary standpoint, and from a moral standpoint, we need to build better kids, and we need to do it day after day after day.”



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