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New Hampshire Split Over High School Cheating

A small town in New Hampshire is coming to grips with a scandal at the public high school where nine students face criminal charges for allegedly breaking into a classroom and stealing advance copies of final exams.

The incident at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., is sparking debate between those who believe the students are being treated fairly and those who think the charges go too far.

The cheating incident occurred at the end of the last academic year, when nine 17-year-old students, using stolen keys, allegedly stole final exams for various higher level math classes from a teacher's filing cabinet and shared them with others in the school.

During the exam heist, other students were on the lookout in hallways. About five days later, another group stole chemistry finals.

In all, about 50 students are suspected of participating in the thefts — either helping to plan them or receiving answers from stolen exams.

School officials are considering disciplinary action against the student, including suspension. But they say they, after they first noticed window screens were cut, keys were stolen, and there were other signs of breaking and entering and theft, they also had to get the police involved. After a lengthy investigation, the prosecutor brought criminal charges against nine of the students.

Hanover, an affluent and charming New Hampshire town that centers around prestigious Dartmouth College, has been rocked by the events, and all the negative media attention.

In front of the high school where the so-called Notorious Nine allegedly stole the exams, many students are fed up with reporters questions. When one comes calling, some try to foil any interviews by shrieking and throwing bottles. Others try to drown out interviews by trailing the reporter with an electric guitar and portable amplifier.

Community Split on Punishment

The scandal has put the community at odds. They either scold the students for making poor choices or question the extreme competitiveness that could spark cheating.

Community members scrutinize police motives as well, wondering whether their tough stance is really a carefully orchestrated attempt to show impartiality toward privileged kids. (A doctor, professor, hospital president and journalist are reportedly among the parents.)

One Hanover High sophmore, who didn't want his name used, said the students deserve to be punished, but only by their principal – not by a prosecutor.

"I think they came down way too hard, and they didn't have to get police involved." he said. "(Cheating) is not such a big deal. It happens everywhere. They shouldn't be charged that hard for this little thing."

But law enforcement officials say they are going easy on the kids. Prosecutor Christopher O'Connor of says he could have charged the students with burglary—a felony. But because of their age and the circumstances, he decided to charge them only with trespassing, — the lowest level of misdemeanor. That means the students will face the possibility of a fine, but no prison time.

But because New Hampshire treats 17 year olds as adults, the students could end up with criminal records.

Freshman Ethan Forhour thinks that is too harsh.

"I mean, seriously: they are good kids and they made a mistake. And I think they know they made a mistake," Forhour said.

But his sympathy lacks sway among peers.

"They are criminals. It's the same as if I walked into a convenience store and shoplifted, that's still the same thing, they stole!" said a student who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "They'd kick the crap out of us."

Pressured to Excel

Other students, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admit that they would cheat because of all of the pressure to do well.

Jim Kenyon, a columnist for The Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H. — whose son is accused of acting as a lookout and now attends private school — said Hanover is a place where the college you go to is more of a status symbol than the car you drive, and parents put big-time pressure on their kids.

"We've created a monster, and I'm as guilty as anyone as a parent," said Kenyon. "Because we want the best for our children, and so we should be surprised when we have these kind of things happen."

But Kenyon adds that treating kids like criminals does nothing to address the broader and rampant problem of cheating.

Besides those accused of stealing exams, he said, there are dozens of other kids who asked for copies and used them to cheat.

"It was working like a New York deli," said Kenyon. "Kids just calling up, and putting in an order, and that to me, speaks to the culture of the school that needs to be addressed."

He said that he never really lectured his kids about academic integrity. He just never saw the matter as one of the biggies, like drugs and drunken driving.

Different Notions of Honesty

Teachers also may be sending kids the wrong message about cheating.

Students say they know they won't get in trouble for things like sharing homework or finding out what's on a test from kids who've already taken it. "That is cheating, and some teachers don't classify it as cheating," said Junior Cory Burns. "Or some don't see it as such a serious issue, " added Dillon Gregory.

The millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000) seems to have a different notion about honesty than previous generations.

Aine Donovan, executive director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, said kids today are more apt to rationalize their behavior as a means to an end; and they seem to have invented their own particular code of right and wrong.

"When I ask my students: 'Is there anything unethical about downloading music?'" Donovan said. "(They answer) 'Absolutely not.' They don't have a problem with it. And yet, those same kids would never in a million years, walk into a K-mart and steal a CD. They just have a different kind of orientation of morality."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.