WHAT'S THE most valuable message a parent can impart to a child?
That it is important to be honest? Or, that it is important to get into Princeton?
The parents of nine high school students accused of breaking into Hanover High School in New Hampshire are furious that school officials turned the case over to local police. The police prosecutor brought criminal charges against the students who allegedly broke into a teacher's filing cabinet and stole exams. Their parents are now being told that if they choose to take the case to trial, the misdemeanor charges could be raised to felonies.
Threatening a felony charge in this situation seems as extreme as the campus police decision to taser an obnoxious college student who interrupted Senator John Kerry's speech at the University of Florida. But those parents who are angry that school administrators in Hanover turned a case of breaking and entering over to police also seem extreme in their defense of their children's alleged wrongdoing.
As Superintendent of Schools Wayne Gersen told the Globe, "We have never called the police for a cheating incident. But there is never a time when we would not call the police when someone breaks into our building."
The parents are trying to get the charges reduced to violations that carry no criminal penalties. Such penalties could jeopardize their child's chances of attending college or getting hired for a job.
"What's frightening as a parent is that a 17-year-old makes one little mistake and he's going to have a potential prison sentence," said Jim Kenyon, a columnist for The Valley News based in Lebanon, N.H.
As the mother of two teenagers, I agree. The prospect of jail and a promising future derailed is frightening. But it is also scary to hear a parent equate an allegation of breaking and entering into a school for the purpose of stealing exams as "one little mistake." This is, at minimum, a very big mistake.
Today, cheating is routinely dismissed as no big deal. A stadium filled with New England Patriots fans sent that clear message to Coach Bill Belichick after he was fined $500,000 for illegally filming the signals of New York Jets coaches in the season opener.
"Do whatever it takes to win" is the accepted mantra in politics, business, and sports. Not surprisingly, that attitude spills down into high school.
A report released last year by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group based in Los Angeles, found "entrenched habits of dishonesty" amongst young people.
About 28 percent of 36,122 public and private high school students who were surveyed admitted stealing from a store within the past year; 23 percent said they stole something from a parent or other relative; 82 percent said they lied to a parent about something significant; and 60 percent said they cheated on a test during the past year.
At the same time, 98 percent of the students who responded to the survey said "It's important for me to be a person with good character"; and 97 percent said it is "important that people trust me." Unfortunately, those positive values are undercut by cynicism about how things work in the real world. Of those surveyed, 59 percent agreed that "In the real world, successful people do what they must to win, even if others consider it cheating"; and 42 percent believe "A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed."
What happened at Hanover High School went beyond lying or cheating. Students allegedly entered the school building one evening after school was out. While some stood guard, others entered a classroom and used stolen keys to break into a teacher's filing cabinet and steal tests.
Breaking and entering is a crime, not just a mistake. It is fair to treat all alleged perpetrators equally, by turning the matter over to police. Participation at any level, as lookout or thief, should make a parent very angry - at the child who chose that path.
These students have the right to a presumption of innocence and due process. But parents who worry that criminal prosecution hinders college admissions and future career opportunities seem to be missing the major concerns raised by this incident.
Why did these students decide the break-in was worth the risk?
What drove their children to conclude that success via stealing and cheating is more important than basic honesty?
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.