Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2004/ 4 Shevat, 5764

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Activists: If you want to change the world, begin with your local high school | My lines of work bring cool receptions. Giving graduate students "C's" does not yield fruit baskets. So long as student hostility does not involve semi-automatic weapons, I cope.

Agitated column readers also pack a wallop. When confronted by angry readers, I deny who I am, explaining that Marianne Jennings is my evil look-alike with bad hair. Together, these gentle readers and I, badmouth, well, me. Rhetorically-risky-jobs breed survival skills.

However, 54+ semesters of grades and 13 years of columns did not prepare me for my speech vis--vis cheating and ethics at a local high school. The school shall remain nameless because the few decent students, faculty and administrators there should not be painted with the broad brush of corruption I shall now heave upon the canvas of public education. Suffice it to say that the school was in greater Phoenix and was not a victim of urban blight.

A week prior to my high school oratory, one of the administrators explained that I would speak to juniors and seniors while a motivational speaker spoke to freshman and sophomores. One group enhances its self-esteem by jumping around for a Tony Robbins wanna-be as rap music blares. Meanwhile, I explain that downloading music from the Internet is wrong.

They asked if I had a video they could show to the "kids" to get them excited because, "Our other speaker is very dynamic." How about a Sesame St. video brought to you by the letter "F" for "felony? Sadly, I had no infomercial for the cherubs.

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Still, against my better judgment and backlash from a body of administrators who had built down student hopes, I went loaded for bear on academic debauchery. The students meandered into the auditorium. There was less noise and more order in "Braveheart" battles. The Ninth Circuit probably mandated high school stampedes under the First Amendment.

I explained that 75% of high school students cheat. Most of the student body found that stat funny, with some in the crowd cheering "Yes!" I felt like the motivational bimbo.

There was growing insurrection as I outlined the consequences of cheating. They booed, and then they laughed hysterically. The infomercial administrator called in security to man the aisles. I had visions of pitch forks storming the stage. They soon stopped listening. A couple in the front row needed abstinence training, most particularly its importance in public auditoriums.

For the first time in 35 years of public speaking, I ended a speech early. I offered two autographed copies of my book, a fable about ethics. No one wanted them. The students were forced back to class. I watched the Bataan Death March back to first period. Sweet revenge.

I explored causation for my failure. The motivational speaker, the negative attitude of some administrators, and the general setting of hundreds of juniors and seniors in one room contributed to the debacle.

But, they laughed, booed and ignored me because they know ethics don't matter. Last year several students at this school cheated on a math final. When the instructor proposed a penalty, the parents protested mightily. No action was taken against the students.

The school has a culture of looking the other way. These students know that you can cheat and get away with it. My message was laughable, given their life and academic experiences. They also know their parents are a safety net. Administrators back down on penalties. The honest students can't figure out why they should care when no one else does.

Those running this asylum have fascinating rationalizations. One administrator said that when five students turned in a homework assignment with the exact same wording, such conduct was not cheating, but "group work." Another administrator explained, "They're not bad kids. They only cheat because of time pressures."

Then Andrew Fastow was not a bad guy either. He felt pressure because his earnings figures at Enron were coming up short, so he made up companies. Bernie Ebbers was a good guy trying to keep WorldCom stock prices high by cooking the books.

Newsflash for high school administrators: everyone has a reason for cheating. Good intentions do not make bad acts less wrong. Try selling this notion to a group of high school students who understand the tone at the top. Try telling students that cheating doesn't pay as they sit in a room with the teachers and administrators who don't punish cheaters. These students dwell in a world that functions just fine with cheating.

Don't blame the rich, the Republicans, Halliburton or greed for scandals. Blame the schools, the parents and cheating without consequences. These students move from high school to college and then to higher stakes in business. Cheating has served them well.

If you want to change the world and the way it does business, begin in your local high school. Impose a penalty on one cheater. Let the parents sue. Draw a line. Failing grades are tough to dish out. How well I know. To not give a failing grade for cheating means we have failed our children.

The failure that morning was not mine. It belongs to the parents and the school. Both face the chore of rebuilding a collapsed ethical culture. I don't expect a fruit basket, but a letter of apology would be a nice start. It might just be the ethical thing to do.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2004, Marianne M. Jennings