Why smart kids cheat

La Jolla High School, Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines High School have similar demographics, located in affluent neighborhoods with high-achieving students competing for top spots in elite universities. This makes some students feel that cheating is worth the risk, administrators say.

“The pressures are enormous,” La Jolla High Principal Dana Shelburne said. “Kids are panicking. I’ve got a lot of highly intellectual students ... and they’re so frazzled.”

“They are competing with each other both for grades in classes as well as slots in the universities,” San Dieguito Associate Superintendent Rick Schmitt said. “Over my career, in my experience, most of the kids who get caught cheating are the most competitive kids.”

“In any community where kids are high-achieving, worried and stressed about college, my guess is that cheating is rampant,” said Elloise Allen, assistant principal at Canyon Crest. “It’s never the kids afraid of failing. It’s the kids trying to get into highly selective universities. It’s the kid who wants to make sure he keeps his A, it’s the kids who want to make sure they go to Berkeley, it’s the kid who’s feeling pressured by their parents.”

Allen said the students who cheat are often the ones who are strong students but are socially at risk. They are vulnerable when, for example, the star lacrosse player asks them for help.

“The kid says ‘sure’ because they hope this is a way to feel accepted,” she said. “And the next thing you know, you’re in trouble because you showed somebody your biology lab report.”

Shelburne blames the intensity of the college application process for the increased acceptance of cheating by students. In an effort to reduce stress, he’d like to eliminate weighted grades, so “kids would then be out from under the onus of having to take only weighted courses,” he said.

Since colleges recalculate grade point averages anyway, based on their own criteria, weighted grades provide a false sense of accomplishment, he said. “For some of these kids, getting an A in a regular old class lowers your GPA,” he said. “So they won’t take these courses, or they try to avoid them.”

Eliminating the weighted grade would reduce the incentive to cheat, Shelburne said, “because you can get an A without having to get the super-A. It would also allow you not to have to feel that you have to take four AP courses every year and get overloaded.” Overextended students may feel they have to cheat because they can’t keep up, he said.

What students say

Vince Gumina, former Associated Student Body president at La Jolla High who just graduated this year, said cheating is rampant, especially among high-achieving students.

“It’s ironic that a lot of the kids who seem to ‘have all the answers’ really just ‘have all the answer sheets,’ ” he wrote in an e-mail. “The college application process is hard. Kids are afraid that if they don’t bulk up schedules with tons of AP classes, then they won’t get into the college of their dreams. And if they don’t make it to the college of their dreams, there’s a part of us that pictures ourselves on the side of the road as a homeless person.”

Gumina said parental pressure also contributes to the cheating epidemic, which drives their children to cheat “to gain self-worth and acceptance.”

“Tons of my friends and peers cheated regularly on tests, quizzes, homework,” he wrote.

“How do they get the answers? Teachers are lazy and reuse the same tests over and over again, year after year, without changing the questions/answers. ... Some sell these answers. Some give them away for free.”

Gumina said he had many opportunities to cheat but “would rather fail honestly than passing dishonestly.”

“Kids coasted through high school due to cheating,” he said. “Although ‘ratting’ them out is the right thing to do, students as you may guess frown upon a tattletale. So most observers stay silent. It bothers a lot of them, but going behind a peer’s back too feels like cheating in its own respect, and subjects kids to harsh peer criticism.”

Gumina suggested stronger consequences to curtail the practice.

“All I could recommend to cut down on the cheating would be a zero-tolerance policy across the board,” he said. “If you are caught cheating, you fail the class. Plain and simple. Without harsh repercussions, students won’t take other precautionary measures seriously.”

First-time cheaters at La Jolla High receive a zero on that particular work, but it must be averaged into the total points for the class because some teachers drop the lowest test, quiz or homework assignment, Shelburne said.

“Our policy is (that) you don’t get to drop this one,” he said. “You can drop the next one. This one you have to suffer.”

Shelburne said if a teacher is certain that a student was cheating and is able to describe the activity convincingly, then the administration will follow through with consequences, despite protestations by the student or parents.

“That gets dicey sometimes,” he said, but added that often the student admits guilt “because the kid knows that the teacher wouldn’t report there was cheating unless something pretty overt was taking place.”

A second occurrence of cheating in that class during the same school year means the student must drop the class and an F appears on the transcript. Students are not expelled for cheating, he said, nor are they labeled with academic dishonesty on their transcripts.

Teacher resistance

La Jolla encountered resistance to the Report Cheating website, but not from students. Rather, some teachers were opposed, fearful that the data would be used against them in performance evaluations, regardless of Shelburne’s assurances to the contrary.

Shelburne said four or five teachers contacted the union representative.

“The union rep squawked and was told by our legal office that there’s not a thing wrong with this website,” he said. “You can’t claim contractual violations.”

The union was invited to participate in designing the site, and initially agreed, but then never showed up, according to Shelburne.

The district’s legal office supported the school’s site but suggested that teachers be allowed to opt out, which several have done, to Shelburne’s disappointment. He said teachers could simply delete the reports or filter them out and they’d never see them.

“A couple said ‘No, I don’t even want to get a notification that there’s been a report of cheating,’ ” he said. “What message are we sending to the kids?”

Shelburne said some of the teachers “couldn’t get their arms around the fact of an anonymous tip saying there’s cheating in your class. Some of them said, ‘You can’t prove that. That could be some kid messing around.’

“The answer is, ‘Yeah, it could be.’ But if you get enough of them saying there’s texting on cell phones in your class, look around and see if there’s texting on cell phones. Be a little more alert to that.”

Objections to the site from La Jolla High math teacher Emma Zink caused the district to allow teachers to opt out, after she took the issue “all the way to the board,” she said.

“Anyone from anywhere who goes onto the La Jolla High Web site could report cheating,” she said. “Everybody’s anonymous except the teacher.”

If both the accuser and the accused are anonymous, “why do you allow the teachers to be targeted?” she said.

Zink said in the three months when the site was first piloted, from early April to late June of 2009, there were 5,000 hits, which she said “doesn’t make sense.”

Some teachers received 50 e-mail notifications after reports were made over one weekend, she said, adding that students could target teachers they didn’t like or make multiple reports of cheating, at random, repeatedly, for all teachers.

When the site first became operational, Zink said she complained to Shelburne after she received notices that there was cheating on tests occurring in her class on a day when she didn’t give a test.

Mark Bresee, San Diego Unified School District’s general counsel, “had to finally agree that people like me could opt out,” she said, “so those of us who did not wish to receive these emails had a method to block those emails from coming.” She and several other teachers opted out, she said.

Zink said her concern was that there was nothing to investigate with anonymous reporting.

“My point was not to get rid of the Report Cheating Web site,” she said. “All I asked was for my name to be removed so I didn’t get those emails. ... I don’t want to get them. I don’t want to see them. They are of no use to me.”

Zink said the teachers’ union “took up this battle because they too believed was of no value.”

Zink does not dispute that cheating is a serious problem in the school. “You have to be ever-vigilant on cheating,” she said. “There’s cheating, no doubt.” But she objects to this Web site as a way to curb academic dishonesty, “because there’s no way to determine the truth or falsity of it.”

The district’s Ethics hotline, she said, was a viable alternative for reporting cheating. “You can call in cheating,” she said. “They investigate. There’s no way to do that with this.”

Shelburne said he believes the website is making a difference “because it’s on the lips of kids,” he said. “And we made them part of the process of trying to develop a Web site. The kids want to let the information out. They just don’t want to be identified as the snitch.”

Honest students are frustrated with cheaters, he said, and want cheating to cease.

“They see the inequity of it and they want a way to make it stop,” he said.

Shelburne said students say cheating decreases when teachers develop good rapport with students and take a firm stand against cheating from the start. Those teachers have fewer problems because students have respect for the teacher and don’t want to disappoint them.

“If they don’t care about the teacher and the teacher’s a jerk, that’s a whole different story,” he said.

Shelburne said La Jolla High is the only school in the district that offers a website that allows cheating to be reported.

“By and large everybody said this is great,” he said.

Canyon Crest’s Allen said the website is a useful beginning and that it empowers kids, even though it is anonymous on both ends.

“Giving the teachers a heads-up that cheating is going on in their classroom is still good even if you don’t know who the cheater is,” she said.

But no one is under any illusions that cheating will disappear.

“Every year kids get caught and every year kids don’t get caught,” said San Dieguito’s Schmitt. “Since the beginning of my career kids have cheated. Kids have always found ways to beat the system.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: