Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hanover High's "Notorious Nine"

What's with the air in New Hampshire - especially in towns with names that begin with the letter "H"?

First there was the matter of the Hooksett Four, fired from their town jobs for gossiping. Now it's nine kids from Hanover High in trouble with the law for breaking into the hallowed halls of HHS to steal advanced math and chemistry exams.

The cheating scandal that Hanover (home of Dartmouth) is embroiled in was chronicled in Wednesday's Boston Globe by Sarah Schweitzer.

Out of a Hanover High population of 750, "some 50 students are suspected of participating in the thefts, either helping to plan them or receiving answers from stolen exams." Of these 50, criminal charges are being lodged against nine - and these nine (including the mere lookouts) have been informed that if they elect to go to trial, the prosecutor may up what are now misdemeanor charges to felonies. Possible prison terms under that scenario: 3 1/2 to seven years in the slammer. Talk about the school of hard knocks.

Parents - predictably, and somewhat justifiably - are howling about the criminalization of these acts. The school is already planning on meting out reasonable punishments. The cheaters will be suspended for 3 days, receive zero grades on their exams, and have a notation placed on their college applications. This seems plenty harsh enough - especially in what can only be the very hyper-intensive atmosphere at Hanover High, where half the kids are no doubt competing to get into the Ivies or equivalent.

Instead of just treating this as a school incident, however, administrators chose to introduce the criminal element by reporting it as a B&E. Okay, literally it was. But the kids - rotten and amoral as they are - did not steal equipment or vandalize. Nor did they break into someone's house and steal things or vandalize. Which would, reasonably, have been treated as criminal activities (although not felonious ones).

I'm sure the felony threat is just so that the prosecutors can clear this one up without going to court. Still, the criminal overlay is distracting enough to draw attention and discussion from what are the real issues.

So, instead of focusing on why smart kids do dumb things, and why good kids do bad things, and why not so good and not so smart kids do dumb things - and the Notorious Nine likely contain a mix of the above - the conversation starts revolving in large part around town-gown tensions, haves vs. have nots, children of privilege vs. children of unprivileged. (Not bad conversations to have, of course, but the very rancid act of cheating may get lost in the 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time' legal shuffle.) 

Instead of lawyering-up, the parents of the Notorious Nine ought to be spending their time and energies calling the wrath of God down on their kids for cheating, pointing out to their kids that they have shamed themselves and their families; that they have betrayed the trust of their fellow students; and and that they have, indeed, seriously damaged their shots at the top schools. This is, indeed, a change of life event.

It may be the difference between Princeton and Poison Ivy.  Between Georgetown and St. Elsewhere. Between UNH and Unheardof State College. But it shouldn't - as in the old joke about where Jens Jensen had spent the last few years - bet the difference between Yale and jail.

I suspect, of course, that some of those children of privilege are already working with high paid academic consultants who are deciding just what note of contrition to strike in the all-important college essay. They're sitting there with fingers crossed while their parents start working their alumni networks to see if this one little flaw in junior's transcript - and character - can get overlooked. They're hoping that Granddaddy Warbucks will succeed in attaching a string to his mega-donation to the endowment.

Let's face it. Some people get away with "it" - whatever "it" is. 

Maybe they learn something, maybe they don't.

But for those members of the Notorious Nine who don't have the pull to get pulled out of the little quagmire they've put themselves in, here's a little moment of truth. Assuming - quite reasonably - that no one goes to jail and ends up with a felony rap, this is NOT going to ruin your tender young lives unless you let it. So you end up at St. Elsewhere with the sons and daughters of traffic court judges, rather than with the offspring of Supreme Court justices at Yale. BFD. Make the most of the smart, nice, funny kids you meet there - and, I assure you, there will be plenty of them.

As for the parents, a little self-examination may be in order. Sure, no one "has" to cheat, but if you're giving your son or daughter the message that they're only worthy of love if they get thick envelopes from the Ivies on April 15th. Well.....

Meanwhile, whatever pressures these kids are under, they ought to be plenty embarrassed and plenty ashamed. Yes, we can cut them some young-impetuous-peer/parent-pressure slack here. And they shouldn't go to jail.

This isn't a trivial matter, but it shouldn't be a criminal one. You think our prisons are bursting now? Imagine if everyone who cheated in high school had to do time - and there were no statute of limitations. (Now there's a thought.)



As it happens, I have two friends who are Hanover High grads, so I know that it's possible to get into top schools without cheating because they managed to do it, as did their brothers and sister. For the record, this crew went to Dartmouth, Smith, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard - and that's just for undergrad starters. And they did it the hard way - on their own merits. Their father was a carpenter: no fancy consultants, no alumni network, no big donations. Just good, old-fashioned plugging away.

Note to Rob: You didn't think I was going to get through a post on Hanover High without mentioning you guys, did you?


Anonymous said...

A few comments from a member of the HHS community:
1) Those who allegedly "broke in" (using a key to unlock a locked cabinet) or "looked out" (were roped in to stand at their lockers while getting their books to study) are involved in the "crime." They did not necessarily cheat on the exams (one earned a "D", 'tho some Harvard grads might say, "what an idiot for not taking advantage of the situation and getting the "A."
2) The alleged cheating scandal involved an uncounted number of students; at least 50 named (but not proven guilty), and likely many more. Therein lies the "academic violation."
3) The two, while seemingly grouped together to inspire the moral outrage among the more untainted in our society, are separate issues.

As an educator, here are lessons I fear our children will learn from this event, not only those allegedly involved in the scandal, but by all of our children witnessing the actions and responses—or lack thereof—from the adults in this community:
• “Innocent until proven guilty” is a sham. One of the cornerstones of our democracy (taught and reinforced throughout their education) has very limited application, if at all. If accused, you will be publicly tried and convicted daily by your teachers, neighbors, parents of your schoolmates, and people who don’t know you or what actually happened. This point seems to be missed by everyone, even the highly educated.
• Adults love to be outraged. In the absence of facts, adults speculate, get angry about their speculations, and then relish making judgmental and vituperative comments about things they know little about. It's particulary easy to do that when teenagers are involved.
• Scapegoats are useful when you want to be outraged but don't want to think too hard. If accused of doing something wrong, you will be publicly blamed not only for your alleged actions, but for all the consequences that result from the poor choices of other parties, whether they be the police, the school administration, the local and national “news” broadcasters, or the choices of fellow students. The adult parties involved will let it happen, because their reputations are far more important that yours, or your education.
• “We are just doing our job” is a convenient screen for avoiding self-reflection and thoughtful action by adults who could otherwise provide leadership and a more productive means of education beyond fomenting criminal trials.
• Don’t speak up. If anyone (particulary parents) dares speak out about the above, they will not only be accused of making excuses for/bailing out their children and having no moral compass, they will be vilified for suggesting that as a community, we should all care for each other and our children.
• Your mom and dad should be the first to condem and abandon you. If they start asking questions about due process, they are not raising morally sound children. Prosecuting attorneys are OK; defenders are taboo.
• You’re on your own. When children are most in need of getting the help they need to be ushered safely into adulthood, their community will write them off and abandon them.

You may argue that these are, in fact, the lessons they should be learning. They are, after all, the principles that guide our current administration and business leaders. Are they the ones you intend to teach your children?

Anonymous said...

I'm a Hanover High parent and has a child who is a senior now. I am dismayed with all of the media attention. I am dismayed that none of the parties involved have shown any public contrition - perhaps if their parents had said I am so ashamed and sorry this has happened, and so is my child, instead of trying to blame everyone but their child, things might have played out differently. (There is a general disgust in the community with some parents seeming to try to blame society, the school, police - everyone else for their child's actions).

It's very easy to be arm chair quarterback and say the administration took the wrong steps. How was the administration to know when they contacted the police about several strange incidents that had taken place that it would lead to thefts of tests. This is an unfortunate consequence of the unfortante actions taken by several students who should have known better. Does the administration have the time and resources to investigate break ins, find stolen keys, etc.? Maybe they wish they had now, but probably were swamped at the time with graduation, and a myriad number of other responsibilities. I am disgusted with parents trying to focus all of the blame on the administration, and what about the students obligations to the school, to fellow students, to teachers?

I would like to remind folks that the students who stole tests and those who served as lookouts, knowing what was going on, are not victims. The victims are the classmates, the teachers, the school as a whole. Trust has been breached. The students wanted to benefit at the expense of their classmates. Would it have been better if they succeeded? I sometimes think that this is what some of the parents wish.

What the students involved need to learn from this is stength of character. They need to say I don't want to be involved, this is wrong. I don't want to be a sheep because I don't have the guts to say no. I have the integrity to work to earn my grades.. or I am willing to stand up and say I did this and was wrong and am very, very sorry.

My child was not involved with this incident, did not see any tests, did not cheat on any tests and knows plenty of kids who did not cheat. He has not cheated on any tests or homework during his school career, for better or worse. In fact, the majority of seniors did not cheat. Out of a class of 213, perhaps 1/4 cheated. That is far too many, but I am sick and tired of some parents trying to make out that everybody at the school cheats. Not true. Their constant comments in the media hurt the entire school, especially all of the innocent kids. It also makes the parents seem desperate, selfish, and wanting to pull down everyone with them, no matter what.

This said, I don't know what the proper punishment for the students involved should be. Most of them are likeable kids. However, they should have known better and need to be held accountable. Sometimes we do things and are surprised at how our actions play out. This may be such an instance where the kids actions land them with criminal records. It's an unfortunate side effect from participating in something that was wrong, and a very hard life lesson to learn.

Anonymous said...

Maureen, A nice, balanced yet acerbic piece on Hanover High School’s Notorious Nine.

I am one of the Notorious Parents in the HHS cheating case. The behaviors my son is accused of (note my newly acquired lawyer speak) are indeed thoughtless and did betray his school and his classmates. Rest assured I’m bringing down plenty of wrath on my son though not nearly as much as he’s bringing on himself. Parental wrath seems almost quaint at this point in the evolution of this mess when you see it in the context of my son being humiliated in the local and national press and savaged on YouTube. Many of the blogs are brutal, which is what I love/hate about blogs.

Note that neither my son nor the rest of my family feel like victims in this circumstance. We don’t blame academic pressure, heck we don’t even buy into academic pressure though our children are excellent students, and we aren’t even close to rich as we have been accused of so often in the media and in blogs. We never called in the national media to “smear” the school or “destroy the town”. The idea that a few upset parents from a fly-speck of a place like Hanover could summon the national press to their cause is utterly absurd and that parents constantly accuse me of this shows an almost touching lack of sophistication.

I have never suggested or commented on how many kids at Hanover cheated and I don’t particularly care. A lot of kids cheated, most will get away with it. Welcome to the world. I have disliked and distrusted the administration at HHS since our kids started going there so the administrations remarkable incompetence and arrogance at every turn during this crisis is no surprise. They will be investigated for violating certain laws (FERPA) and some parents will sue them though I won’t to avoid having to speak with either HHS administrators or the sniveling, self-righteous people of Hanover.

As many parents do, I’ve always had some lingering doubts about myself as a parent but now I have the slings and arrows of the letter writing public to assure me I am, as I feared, an “unfit parent” who is “eager to publicize his shame.” Of course, we unfit parents don’t readily feel shame and I feel no shame whatsoever in this case. I was home at the time of the thefts so I just can’t bring myself to feel ashamed. I don’t think you can indict people as adults and then turn around and blame their criminal behaviors on their parents. Well, I guess you can do that since that is what’s happening but it seems like double dipping to me. I did make one huge mistake as a parent, moving from NYC to Hanover ‘for the children.’ We all dislike it here and plan to move as soon as we can organize to do so.

My son, ever a vigilant boy, is accused of acting as a look out in one of the thefts. The prosecutor is still planning to increase the charges to felonies, which will apparently delight many out in the blogosphere (I do hate that term but my generation contributed our fair share of hideous phrases so I can’t complain.) That is what the word on the street is anyway. The school is now saying they can’t punish any of the 50 or so other cheaters because if they use the Notorious Nine’s testimony to the police as a basis to hand out punishment then they are acting on nothing but “hearsay.” Needless to say the dozens of kids who cheated and didn’t wind up under indictment are hardly lining up to report themselves.

Of course many of the fine parents of Hanover, always over-involved in every aspect of their children’s lives, are telling the kids to ‘watch each other’s backs’ and ‘get their stories straight.’ Who knows what I would do if I were in their position. I told my son to tell everyone the truth. Now the other students call my son a “sucker” to his face.

The superintendent has repeatedly claimed that the police in Hanover were not investigating cheating. The facts don’t support his claim. When the police first contacted us, it seems like ten years ago now but it was in July, they said they were “investigating a cheating incident for the school.” During long and sometimes aggressive interviews with the police the boys were pressed repeatedly to supply names of students who cheated and many of the 120 pages of the police report are lists of names, addresses and in some cases social security numbers of students who cheated and the teachers whose tests were compromised. Whatever the school administrators thought when they turned this entire matter over to the police and walked (ran?) away, what they got was a seven week police investigation into academic cheating.

I will note that HHS has a truly great faculty who never skipped a beat when my son returned to school. The faculty is doing their job without letting anything distract them. I always thought this school had a fine group of teachers but they have really showed their colors in the tough going this year. I salute every one of my children’s teachers and they remind us how lucky we are to have our children at HHS.

The school administration, on the other hand, has totally abandoned my son, though I doubt that will be accompanied by a discount on my taxes. These people are paid more than just about any other administration in the state and they are simply not up to this crisis on any level. The press is having a field day, though I support wholeheartedly the right of a free and unfettered press to report on anything it sees fit to look into, and we’re spending our hard earned savings on lawyers and soon, yes you caught us Maureen, educational consultants. The consultants are not our first choice but even the school guidance department, normally a bastion of caring, has turned their backs on the Notorious Nine.

It isn’t all bad, however. We see a lot of our son since his arrest and he is a fine, handsome, intelligent sardonic young man who one afternoon on the last day of classes last June ran into some friends at the wrong moment. Well, nothing like the threat of a felony indictment to bring a family closer together. By the way, my son never touched, saw, distributed or used any of the tests. He has never cheated and doesn’t need to though he is in all advanced courses. HHS isn’t a very hard school and the world I have subjected my children live in is about as uninspiring and monochromatic as could be imagined.

Maureen Rogers said...

Thanks to all of my anonymous commenters for your thoughtful notes on the Hanover High cheating scandal. Anonymous #3's comments - and, by the way, I think you sound like a great parent - have prompted me to note a few of the things that some of the good kids I grew up with did:

Drank illegally
Drove drunk
Drove recklessly
Used drugs
Sold drugs
Got pregnant
Cheated on tests
Vandalized something or other
Got pregnant

Some kids got away with it, others didn't. Kids I know got killed in drunken driving accidents; they got arrested for holding an ounce of grass. One of my cousins died when, shortly after she got her license, she let another kid use her family car to drive home from school. The kid started speeding and got into an accident. He lived, my cousin died.

I was too much of a nerdy goodie two-shoes to do much of anything wrong in high school, but even I remember scraping the side of someone's car in the Salem Street parking lot in Worcester trying to get the honkin' family Galaxy 500 into a spot. And being to scared of what my father would say to leave a note for the person whose car I scraped, even though the damage was probably all of $50 worth.

The point is that teen-age judgement is not always that sound. And to prosecute these kids as felons just seems so overboard. It is also unfortunate that the Notorious Nine are taking the full brunt of things,when so many other kids who cheated got away with it. Finally, it's unfortunate that there is such a brunt of things to begin with.

If every person who'd done something wrong,thoughtless, stupid,or criminal as a kid were prosecuted (or persecuted) for it, the world would hardly be a better place.

Anonymous said...

Yes, they got caught. What about the others; does anyone really think they were the only ones? And do we really want people like that in our already screwed-up society? No. Execute them. Period.