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Don’t weaken Medford School District’s co-curricular code

Character still counts for something. The Medford School Board sent the wrong message on Monday night when board members voted to remove “academic dishonesty” as a specific example of level one violations under the district’s co-curricular code of conduct.

Level one violations fall under “Out of Character Behavior” and other examples include having a full day in or out of school suspension, displaying disrespectful behavior and being in the presence of the illegal consumption of alcohol or drugs.

The change, according to activities director Andy Guden, is to give additional flexibility to the classroom teacher and administration in handling situations.

The district’s co-curricular code of conduct, for all its flaws, was purposefully designed and implemented to hold student athletes, and all others representing the school in clubs and organizations, to not just a higher standard, but to the highest standard. It was intended that the students following the code represent the best the district has to offer in the way of behavior and attitude.

The ongoing challenge for administration and teachers is how to enforce the pie-in-the-sky idealism of the code of conduct with the reality of teaching life lessons to teenagers, who by their very nature are prone to making poor decisions. This becomes especially difficult considering the very real and very sharp teeth built into the code for those found violating it. The consequences leave little wiggle room to craft punishments that address the circumstances of the violation rather than simply abiding by the letter of the code.

Should a momentary lapse of judgement as a student sneaks a peek at his neighbor’s paper in class carry the same penalty as plagiarizing an essay or paying someone to do a term paper for you? It can be universally agreed that all these examples are cheating. The difference is the degree that the cheating occurred. Is it ever OK to cheat just a little bit? Does it matter that the cheating takes place in the classroom versus the playing field or workplace?

The administration’s intent in asking for the change in the policy language is understandable from an educational and fairness standpoint. Mandatory minimum punishments, whether they are in school or a courtroom, fundamentally fail at having the punishment meet the crime.

It sends a mixed message when the district is calling for the removal of so basic a component of integrity as demanding absolute academic honesty. In their defense, the district is not giving cheaters a free pass, but simply removing academic dishonesty from the list of specific examples of the otherwise open-ended “out of character” clause of the policy.

In effect they are taking the bright line rule and inserting varying shades of gray. While the hope is this will give greater flexibility to craft appropriate punishments for violators, it also opens the door to allegations of favoritism and preferential treatment which would undermine the very intent of the code.