Academic Crime and Punishment
By The Dartmouth Editorial Board
Published on Friday, November 16, 2007
The recent publicity surrounding Hanover High School students' attempt to cheat on a final exam has generated a great deal of sympathy from the press. Some argue that the level of punishment is excessive; others explain away the students' behavior by citing societal pressures to perform academically. But whatever external pressures these students may have faced, and whatever the outcomes of the trials, cheating is widespread in high schools across the nation, and widespread cheating prevents schools from serving their purpose.
The case at Hanover High School is undoubtedly an extreme one; it is certainly not common for students to devise a scheme to break into their schools to steal exams. But smaller-scale examples of cheating -- looking at someone else's paper, writing answers on a scrap of paper or hiding a book in a bathroom for reference during an exam -- run rampant in competitive high school atmospheres. A school that suffers from a cheating epidemic cannot function. Since a school can't catch students most of the time they cheat, but at the same time must prevent cheating in order to maintain its function, it must punish those whom it catches severely so as to curtail cheating.
The victims of academic dishonesty are not those who cheat, but those who don't. When students cheat, the hardest workers go unrewarded and non-cheaters are forced to choose between falling behind and cheating. We saw the same effect with performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. Pervasive cheating de-emphasizes a student's incentive to learn and a school's ability to teach and evaluate its students. Had these cheating efforts gone unpunished, the honest ones who chose integrity over the competitiveness of their college applications would have been the truly mistreated ones, but the media likely would not have come to their defense. Although these cheaters are charged with crimes pertinent to the cheating efforts and not with cheating itself (cheating is not against the law), class rankings in public schools are valuable commodities and, therefore, cheating is, in a sense, a form of theft.
Hanover High's punishment has far-reaching impacts. Regardless of whether the school was right to call the police, the attention that this ordeal has garnered is a signal, a deterrent, to other students at Hanover High School and elsewhere that embarking on cheating schemes is a bad idea.
Despite much debate over the intricacies of Dartmouth's treatment of violations of the honor code, the College handles similar situations equally seriously -- and it should. While the College does not seek law enforcement's help to punish cheaters, it does generally suspend students from campus for a long time. Its responses might seem extreme, as might the high school's decision to call the police. But cheating is a violation that threatens academic institutions and harms every single one of a cheating student's honest peers. The honest ones are those whom academic institutions should protect.