David is a student in a school district where his mother is on the school board. Recently, three of his classmates posted a web site that openly attacks some of the teachers and students, using explicit and offensive language. It even goes as far as predicting which gay students will be the first to die of AIDS. Remarks about several teachers are scathing, suggesting that one fantasizes about having sex with young girls and that two married teachers are having an affair. The site includes disgusting graphics.
Several weeks ago David learned the identities of the three students who created the website when one of them accidentally said something to him in a conversation. The other two quickly corralled David and pressured him not to reveal their names. He agreed, not thinking much about it at the time. David used to be close to one of the three students, but that friendship has faded.
Now, the school principal has obtained a program that allows him to identify each person who has visited the website. He is asking students to come forward with the names of the creators of the site, and if no one does, he is going to question each student who visited the site. David is one of those who did visit the site. He realizes he may be the only student who knows the names of the three kids who created the site. He can lie and say he doesn’t know, or he can break his promise not to tell.
David has always thought of himself as an ethical person with a pretty clear sense of right and wrong. Right now, however, he feels that either choice will end in disaster. What should David do?
On Friday, Mr. Crosby had all three boys stay to talk with him during recess. He told them they had until the end of recess to work out whatever it was that was going on between them. If they had not all forgiven each other by the end of recess, they had to go to the principal’s office. Then Mr. Crosby left the classroom.
The three boys stared angrily at each other waiting for someone to say something. Sam didn’t know what to say. All he knew was that he was tired of being mad and hurt. What could he do to make it stop? And what did Mr. Crosby mean by all forgive each other?
Notes for the Facilitator
One of the best definitions of an ethical choice is one that is a “choice between two rights” or a “choice between two wrongs.” I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard my students say, while discussing a case, “Well, this guy’s screwed either way.”
I borrowed this case from a great school I worked with recently in Atlanta. I used it in my classroom just last week and was, again, struck by the power of peer loyalty. Many of my students who fully acknowledged the seriousness of the offense still could not bring themselves to turn in their classmates. However, what really struck me was that one my fiercest students around the issue of “snitching” was the one who turned the discussion around by saying he would turn in his peers. It was an exciting moment. His point was that his most important moral guide was peer loyalty, and that by turning in the three students he was being loyal to a larger group of peers. He may not have established friendships with them, but he might want to later. His point was that this choice was morally correct (to him) on both sides. He based his choice on how many of his classmates would be affected positively by what he decided to do.
This case also allows you to have a rich discussion around the concept and definition of community. You can never have too many of those. What are our ethical obligations when we join a community? What prevents us from honoring those obligations?
Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)
- How might David make sense of this situation?
- What do you consider to be David’s responsibility?
- A common definition used to describe an ethical choice is a “choice between two rights.” How might you apply this to David’s situation?
- What would you do if you were in David’s place? How would that choice affect the others in this case?
- How might your decision be affected by whether or not you were close with one of the teachers or students that were humiliated on the site?
- How bound would you feel by the promise you made to the three students?
- Have you or someone you know ever been in a situation where you were expected to turn someone in? Share what that was like.
- Is there ever a point where the good of a community is more important to honor than the good of an individual relationship?