High school students and business professionals discussed ethical shades of gray last week at the fifth annual youth and leadership conference in Burbank.
"We learned how gray some areas of ethics are," La Canada High School student President Greg Gagliardi said. "We talked about what is considered cheating, what is gaining knowledge versus gaining leverage over the competition."
Gagliardi was one of 48 students from seven high schools who met with business people to discuss ethics and leadership in the classroom and the workplace.
The idea for the conference originated six years ago when officials of the Glendale school district and the Glendale Chamber of Commerce went to a conference in San Francisco presented by the California Constitutional Rights Foundation.
The student participants this year were selected by high school administrators and student government leaders. Most of the 48 professionals were elected through local service organizations, such as Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
Ethics became a strong component of the conference last year because of Wall Street insider trading scandals and press coverage of the presidential election, said conference organizer Jack Quinn.
"There is a correlation between the ethics that kids experience in school and the ethics that they will be encountering in the business world," said Rich Grimes, dean of students at Crescenta Valley High School.
"What we found as we talked about these things are that there are some tough judgment calls that are a shade of gray, such as stealing from a company versus stealing from an individual," Glendale City Manager David Ramsay said.
"Ethical decisions are oftentimes very difficult ones to make because you are confronted with issues that are not strictly right or strictly wrong," said Vic Pallos, spokesman for the Glendale schools. "The students are now more aware of areas in their lives where they need to make ethical choices."
Participants also debated the relevancy of high school curricula in preparation for professional life. Many students criticized the test-oriented evaluation system, but professionals responded that skills learned in the classroom have direct application on the job.
"I think teachers stress grades too much," said Glendale High School senior Chris Petrossian. "Sometimes we just go through the motions when we take a test. If you ask us a week later what we learned, we don't know."
Tony Silveria, a manager for the J. H. Biggar furniture store, responded: "The students are trying to streamline what they learn. . . . But they must understand that it's important to learn as much as possible while you're in school because in the business world, you're given a whole new set of rules to follow."
La Canada student Jeff Burns said: "I would want to spend less time in the classroom and more time in the real world. . . . I want to be taught how to be a good person, not just how to take tests."
A number of students suggested internships as a way to get experience. Some of the business representatives supported the idea of orientation visits to businesses but were skeptical about internships.
"The business environment is very competitive," said Ken Doty, president of Doty Development. "It's not feasible to try and teach someone for a couple of months in that kind of setting."