By Charis Denison, Prajna Consulting
Daily Dilemma — GoodCharacter.com

The Situation

Phoebe is a senior and president of the student body. Lately, she is becoming more and more overwhelmed by her rigorous AP course load and college applications. She has been sick for the past month and has fallen behind in many of her classes. Her application to Brown University and her AP Art History paper are both due on Monday. It’s Sunday now. Phoebe makes a tough decision and plagiarizes the entire section on Impressionism on her paper, finishes her application and goes to bed. On Monday, Phoebe turns in her paper.

By lunchtime, Phoebe’s AP Art History teacher had asked to see her. He quickly realized the fact that a large portion of her paper was plagiarized and confronts her about it. Phoebe bursts into tears and explains to him about all the pressures of being sick, taking five AP’s, playing three varsity sports and being president of the student body. Brown is her number one choice for college and she felt she had to make a choice.

Phoebe’s teacher turns her in to the school honor council. She is very remorseful and volunteers to give a speech to the student body apologizing for what she has done. She also begs the honor council not to write to the colleges that she has applied to, as she has worked so hard throughout her high school career and is applying to the most competitive colleges and universities.

What should the honor council do?

Notes for the Facilitator

And so we enter the muddy waters of academic honesty and integrity. This case can be molded to suit your school’s needs but its main dilemma is a powerful one for high school students.

Again, if we as character educators are to ask if cheating is wrong, most if not all students will agree, absolutely. However, the immediate response to this case with most of my kids is pure empathy for Phoebe and that she is an exception. It is interesting to watch how some students will change their thought process when they are acting on behalf of an “honor council” rather than simply talking about Phoebe’s plight.”

The idea of the “exception” can then be explored in great depth. So, who gets the exception? A great idea is to have students come up with responses in groups on behalf of the honor council, and then to complicate the situation by adding that an African American senior on full scholarship also is applying to Brown, is academically strong, and has had no disciplinary action in all four years. Brown will not take both students from such a small school. Does that information inform your decision in any way?

This usually provides a lively turn in class discussion and some good arguing. You can ask them what other details might change their response. And finally, if it is so easy to change your ideas about academic integrity, what is academic integrity?

Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)

  • If you were on the honor council what would your decision be in this case?
  • Does the fact that Phoebe is student body president affect your decision? In what way?
  • Do you think expectations should be higher for Phoebe based on her position in the school?
  • Have you ever known someone who cheated in some way but felt justified? Did you agree with this person?
  • Have you ever felt justified in cheating in school? What contributed to your feelings?
  • Would your decision be the same if you had known about the second student applying to Brown?
  • How would you explain to others the exception that was made for Phoebe if others were more severely punished?
  • Have any of you been in a class where you know someone who cheated and got a higher grade than you? What did you do? Would you do the same thing now?