Teacher, student groups work to design new cheating policy

Drew Keller, Author

Palo Alto High School’s Academic Honesty Policy could undergo significant changes or even a replacement thanks to the ongoing work of student and teacher committees.

About a year ago, the school administration formed a committee of teachers to address the flaws of the current policy, which some, including Principal Kim Diorio, say is too retributive.

“The previous one [the current policy] was a bit too harsh and too general, ” Diorio said.

Under the current policy, a student receives a zero on the first assignment he or she is caught cheating on and the teacher must notify the department’s instructional supervisor, the student’s teacher advisor and the dean of students. If the student is caught cheating again in any class at any later date, the same consequences are administered and the student is dropped from the course in which the offense occurred with a grade of F. Finally, for a third cheating offense, the student is suspended for five days in addition to the above consequences.

Actual punishment under the current policy is rare. According to social studies teacher and committee member Grant Blackburn, an estimated 90% of students cheat at least once during their high school career, but only a small fraction of this group is ever reported or disciplined.

While this disparity is largely due to the fact that not all incidents of academic dishonesty are caught, it is also due to many teachers administering punishment themselves instead of following Paly’s procedure. According to Diorio, this is because many teachers do not wish to suspend a student for what could be a minor violation. She hopes that a less harsh policy will increase reporting of cheating incidences while providing students with an opportunity to change their behavior, she said.

“The new policy should be educational and informational in nature, rather than punitive,” she said.

Paly junior and Site Council member Anish Haris envisions the new policy similarly.

“The point is not to punish students, but to re-educate them,” Haris said.

The Site Council was briefed on the progress of the revision at its December meeting. Student representatives have formed a separate committee to create its own draft of the new policy. Haris, one of the students on this new committee, hopes to have a version ready in January.

“We’re still in the process of working out the details,” he said.

Once the student group creates a draft, the teacher and student committees will work to merge their versions, according to Haris. Then, parent input and feedback from the rest of the Paly community will be taken into account.

Possible changes discussed at the Site Council meeting focused on three aspects of the current policy: the fact that teachers judge whether cheating occurred in all cases; the treatment of cheating on all work, from homework to finals, as equal; and the accumulation of cheating offenses through all four years and all classes of high school.

In order to provide more fairness in determining whether cheating took place, several of the Site Council members, including parent Jonake Bose, suggested including student input.

“There should be a peer review process, with just peers evaluating the circumstances [of the cheating],” Bose said.

Haley Gans, another parent and Site Council member, proposed a board of students that could review cheating cases, similar to a college student appeals board.

“There should be a council that can nuance the decision and punishment,” Gans said.

According to Site Council member Edie Miller, Paly used to have a student court similar to the one proposed. Other board members criticized the idea of an appeals board as unnecessary and difficult to put into practice.

“There’s a lack of incentive for teachers to catch students cheating in the first place,” Blackburn said. “I know if I [also] had to go before a board and defend myself, I would never catch a student cheating.”

The council also discussed the idea put forward by the students of making the consequences of academic dishonesty differ according to the context of the violation. For example, cheating on a major test would be punished much more harshly than copying homework. Some teachers pushed back on the proposal, however, such as French teacher and Site Council member Carla Guerard.

“I don’t understand the difference between cheating on a quiz and on a test,” Guerard said. “It’s still cheating.”

The final major change under consideration is a modification of the current rule that cheating offenses are cumulative for all years and classes. The goal of such an amendment would be to encourage improvement and change in behavior, rather than harshly punishing missteps. According to Site Council member Susan Bailey, student improvement should be the ultimate objective of the school’s cheating policy.

“Honesty should be emphasized at school, but in high school you have to have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them,” Bailey said.

Miller agreed with this goal for the academic honesty policy.

“It [the honesty policy] teaches people morality,” Miller said. “We’re trying to teach these people how to behave.”