Ethics 101

January 05, 2008

The cheating scandal at Severna Park High School last May may be more typical of teenagers than not. That's not to impugn the character or reputation of a whole class of 13-somethings. But a recent online teen survey suggests a sizable number see no problem with cheating - or plagiarizing, telling lies or resorting to violence, for that matter - to get ahead. We may have expected this "end justifies the means" ethos from college students competing for plum jobs in a global economy, but not from the kids who babysit our kids.

Still, this is the same FaceBook and MySpace generation who seem clueless - or indifferent - to the consequences of behaving badly, recording it and airing the antics on the worldwide Web. Remember the case of the prospective employer who checked out a University of Illinois student's FaceBook profile to find that his slang-laced interests included smoking marijuana, shooting people and obsessive sex? He didn't get the job.

The fifth Teen Ethics Survey, sponsored by Junior Achievement and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, drew 750 respondents, ages 13 to 18. The results, released last month, indicated that 71 percent believed they were prepared to make ethical decisions when they entered the work force. But the eyebrow-raising finding was this: 38 percent of them felt cheating, lying, plagiarizing or committing an act of violence might be necessary to succeed, and at least 24 percent felt cheating on a test was OK.

When Severna Park High students were caught cheating on an Advanced Placement history test in May, some students groused that it was par for the course, and results of their own survey of 337 students appeared to bear that out: 70 percent acknowledged a culture of cheating at the top-rated Anne Arundel County school. Since then, the school has named and trained a new testing coordinator.

County school Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell noted correctly then that a challenging academic environment wasn't the culprit; cheating was symptomatic of a lack of integrity. The school system has invigorated its school honor councils and is revising its policy on cheating.

The character deficit among some teens should be troubling to parents, teachers and students as well as community and business leaders - because its impact can be felt at home, in school and at work. More ethics training in schools would help, but a public education campaign featuring someone with the star power of High School Musical's Zac Efron might be more persuasive. Like totally.

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