Scandal Raises Student-Cheating Issues : Education: As many as 50 Patrick Henry High School students could face criminal charges as well as in-school discipline, posing question of how widespread test cheating is.


A cheating scandal at Patrick Henry High School has raised again the question of how widespread the problem is in San Diego schools.

As many as 50 students out of 1,500 enrolled at the San Carlos-area campus could face both in-school discipline and criminal charges, depending on the outcome of an investigation, Henry Principal Shirley Peterson said Friday.

Peterson said a still-unknown number of students apparently has been using duplicate master keys to gain access to a school copying room, where copies of upcoming tests are kept.

After teachers began to suspect something was amiss--compiling what Peterson called “bits and pieces” of suspicious evidence, including a tip from one student--an instructor pulled a bait-and-switch, deliberately placing a false exam in the copying room.


Several students subsequently wrote answers based on the false exam when given a different test by the teacher in class, Peterson said.

“We will be taking some legal and disciplinary actions against the culprits” after determining who used master keys to illegally enter buildings and take tests, Peterson said.

Peterson was reluctant to provide details Friday, saying her investigation was incomplete. But school board trustee Sue Braun, who was briefed earlier in the week by Peterson on the problem, said at least five students have already been implicated, and that seven duplicate master keys had been recovered.

Braun said that, contrary to some media accounts, the school does not yet know how the students obtained copies of the master key.


Peterson said Friday that the magnitude of the apparent cheating “obviously bothers me and the teachers at the school a great deal, in terms of the fact that these are some of our brightest students, and the pressures they felt they were under to resort to cheating.”

Peterson’s colleagues at other high schools said Friday that what happened at Patrick Henry is not unique.

“This could occur an any campus anywhere, and it could occur among any kids, whether they are the best, or regular, or whatever in terms of academic achievement,” Kearny High Principal Mike Lorch said.

“All kids are under some sort of academic pressure, and will respond at times by cheating unless we teach them adequately why cheating is literally a sin, or crime, of stealing from their fellow students. And that becomes harder for us when kids are not learning about the larger issues of ethics and morality in society, when television is constantly presenting (situations) that have no emphasis on conscience or values.”

Lorch was vice principal at La Jolla High School in 1986 when concern over widespread cheating and plagiarism--a student survey there showed that 80% of them would cheat if necessary to pass a test--resulted in the school’s Academic Honesty Policy.

The policy is discussed by every La Jolla High teacher at the beginning of the school year, and a copy must be signed by both students and their parents, then kept in student files.

It provides harsh punishments--a zero test score on the first instance of cheating, an F semester grade for the second instance--in the case of cheating on tests, fabricating data for an assignment, unauthorized collaboration among students and plagiarism. Theft of test or other course materials brings an automatic F and suspension from school.

“Kids are not stupid, and if you remind them that there is no latitude for this stuff, then you can cut down on the problem,” La Jolla High Principal J. Tarvin said Friday. “We want to make it easier on a student not to be put into a situation where they are tempted to cheat.”


Peterson, the Patrick Henry principal, said Friday that her teachers will look at establishing a similar schoolwide policy. Now, individual teachers may discuss the issue in their classes, but, as a school, it is dealt with only in broad generalities, Peterson said.

“It’s sad to say that, if students haven’t learned by now that there is clearly a difference between studying an old copy of a test and sharing student notes, and having an exact copy of a test they will take tomorrow, some of them will learn it now as a result” of the investigation, Peterson said.

Although legal action is a harsh penalty, Peterson said that “we are going to treat this as severely as is fair and reasonable, and, if we have evidence that students actually entered buildings illegally and removed school property, we will more than likely seek” such action.