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Youths Get Bad Marks in Morality : Behavior: We are on the verge of a society ‘where cheaters prosper and honesty is not always the best policy,’ says the author of a new study.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Josephson frets about the hole in the ozone, he isn’t worrying about sunbathing penguins in Antarctica.

Josephson’s concerns are a lot closer to home--right here in the U. S. A., where he says he has mapped “a hole in the moral ozone” that has blinded a generation of American youth to the age-old virtues of honesty, trustworthiness and personal responsibility.

In a two-year study to be released Friday, Josephson, the independently wealthy founder of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina del Rey, will report that large numbers of American youth admit to stealing, lying and cheating at school, work and home. Billed as “the most comprehensive survey of American ethical attitudes and behaviors ever undertaken,” Josephson will detail the findings in a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club that will be broadcast by 147 public radio stations.

“We’re setting up a kind of backward society where cheaters do prosper and honesty is not always the best policy,” he says.

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For example, the study found that 33% of high school students and 16% of college students admitted shoplifting within a year of being surveyed. The survey found that 11% of high school students and 4% of college students admitted stealing at least four to five times within the previous year.

Thievery also begins at home, according to the survey: 33% of high school students and 11% of college students say they have stolen something from parents or relatives at least once.

Other report findings:

* One in eight college students admits to fraud, such as lying to an insurance company, lying on financial aid forms or borrowing money with no intention of paying it back.

* About one-third of high school and college students say they are willing to lie to get a job. And about one in six admit they already have at least once. Moreover, about one in five college students say they would falsify a report to keep their job, while a similar number say they probably would cheat if it helped them compete on the job.

* A majority of high schoolers--61%--and 32% of college students admit to cheating on an exam at least once.

* Large majorities of both high school and college students--77% and 78%--listed “getting a job you enjoy” as their most important goal. Yet 71% of college students also say that their second most important goal was teaching “firm ethical values” to their children.

* Ironically, the study found that many students lied when answering survey questions. When asked by surveyors, about 40% of high school students and 30% of college students admitted they “were not completely honest” on at least one or two questions. Consequently, the study asserts, it is “highly likely” that the survey understates, “perhaps substantially” the frequency of dishonest behavior.

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The survey’s findings are based on a 100-question survey of 3,243 high school students and 3,630 college students from all regions of the country. Students from religious, private and public schools participated, and most had middle- and upper-middle-income backgrounds. The margin of error is plus or minus 2%.

The report--"Ethical Values, Attitudes and Behaviors in American Schools"--expands an initial study released by the institute two years ago. While that study painted a similarly bleak picture of youthful morals, it relied on data gleaned from a wide variety of sources. This time, Josephson says, the institute gathered its own data to produce a “benchmark” study of the nation’s mores. A similar survey of adults will be released later.

Josephson is especially appalled by students who say they would be willing to cheat or lie to get ahead on the job.

“Everybody’s going to be hiring these people . . . ,” he says. “The willingness to do something (unethical) is a very important question because young people may not have had a chance to do it yet.”

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Still, Josephson doesn’t blame young people entirely for their behavior. In fact, the survey stresses that students’ ethical conduct is heavily influenced by “a continuous barrage of bad examples” in society at large as well as a social system that “refuses to consistently impose negative consequences on bad behavior.”

At least some educators agree with that conclusion.

“I think it’s very easy to get through high school and college these days and hardly ever hear, ‘That’s wrong,’ ” says Patrick McCarthy of Pasadena’s Jefferson Center for Character Education.

But McCarthy questions the need for another study documenting the sins of youth: “These numbers bear out what a lot of people have been saying for 25 years.” The Jefferson Center, he notes, once conducted similar surveys but has largely quit because such studies only confirm the obvious. The bigger challenge, he says, is to change the ethical environment in which young people grow up.

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Lynn Beck, a UCLA assistant professor of education, finds some survey results intriguing and suggests they merit further investigation.

For instance, Beck is surprised that 76% of high school students and 81% of college students list parents as their biggest moral influences. Lawyers, journalists, elected public officials, rock stars and business executives were at the bottom of the list.

“Most people wouldn’t have guessed that,” Beck says, referring to the influence of parents on young peoples’ ethics. The results suggest that “parents may not be acting as (positive) role models,” Beck says, adding that she would like to see further investigation of “the role of parents and rock stars in shaping the attitudes of adolescents.”

Josephson, too, was impressed with the high-ranking of parents: “If they (parents) will truly exercise their power as role models, they can change their children’s behavior.”

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