OCO Architect's Alamo Heights High School Fine Arts Facility. Completed in 2012, the project included 9,415 sq. ft. of renovations and a 13,632 sq. ft. addition.
Alamo Heights High School. Credit: Courtesy Image

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break when three Alamo Heights High School Freshman English teachers realized that something was amiss. What started as a hunch would soon become a headline, a petition, and a concerted effort to preserve what school leaders call “a teachable moment.”

The confusion surrounding the scandal has been significant, said Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD) Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Frank Alfaro, adding that he hopes the tight-knit community can work together toward clarity.

The Incident

The teachers had assigned some analytical questions on the book Things Fall Apart to help students prepare for in-class discussion. They were to hand in their answers for a “daily grade,” the lesser weighted grades going toward a students cumulative average in a class.

Going over the answers, the teachers noticed a trend in the answers. Not only were they similar, but they were more sophisticated than expected.

Soon, a single source emerged. The answers came from an online PDF, created and uploaded by someone who had used the same curriculum guides purchased by the Alamo Heights English department.

Following protocol from a smaller incident involving some members of the Junior class earlier that month, the teachers began the disciplinary process. Students would be confronted and given the opportunity to own their mistakes, parents would be notified, and further actions would be decided.

“With (singular) cases we always handle it though a conversation between the teacher and the parent,” Alfaro said.

Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD) Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Frank Alfaro.
Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD) Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Frank Alfaro. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

When the number of apparent cases of plagiarism approached 90 students, however, the teachers had to send out a blanket email to explain the incident, and alert parents that their students would be facing consequences yet to be determined.

The number would have been higher if teachers had been able to prove every incident. Because the assignment was a discussion guide with short answer questions, not all students cut and pasted their answers. Some rephrased their answers to where it was difficult to prove that they had plagiarized based on the similarity to the study guide. Rather than cast a broad net that could catch up innocent bystanders, teachers kept their investigation limited to the obvious offenders.

The 90 parents who were emailed, therefore, did not represent the entire scope of the incident.

In retrospect, Alfaro acknowledges that this is where the confusion began. The emails, he said, were less than ideal, because they didn’t allow teachers to clarify the basis for determining who would be disciplined.

“For the general community, that has been confusing,” Alfaro said.

The students knew more than the teachers in terms of who exactly had plagiarized. So when the letter went to certain parents and not others, some students wondered why they were being called out, and others were not.

The Code

Some of the confusion stems from the two codes of conduct that came into play during the incident.

First, the Academic Integrity Policy, part of each teacher’s syllabus, outlines a range of infractions and possible consequences teachers might use to deal with academic integrity issues in the classroom. This does not count as school discipline, meaning it can’t result in suspension or expulsion as the consequences are limited to the classroom.

The 24 Hour Code of Leadership is a separate code for extracurriculars adopted in 2002.

“Because those are a privilege, not a right,” Alfaro said.

The 24 Hour Code states that students can face consequences in their extracurricular involvement for infractions happening at home, at parties, or other places. If a tennis player is cited for underage drinking while on spring break, the coach can pull him/her from a tournament, for example.

Three years ago, academic integrity was added to the 24 Hour Code. The administration felt this was appropriate as outgoing seniors continually confirmed that cheating and plagiarism were ongoing.

The system has been evolving due to the influence of technology on student behaviors. For example, when the school’s help hotline became an avenue for vindictive tattle-tale reporting, the administration banned anonymous tips on 24 Hour Code violations.

Technology worked against the system in this case. The scale of the incident, which overwhelmed district protocols, was due to the rapid sharing of the digital PDF. It wasn’t the manner of the cheating – plagiarism is the original sin of academia – but the scale that shocked people, Alfaro said.

Technology actually tripped up the process long before the cheating ever occurred. The 24 Hour Code of Leadership used to be distributed as a triplicate carbon copy, signed and kept by parents, students, and coaches. Now, the form is kept as a Google Doc. Students click a box to acknowledge that they have read and understood what is expected of them. Parents are simply informed that their child has agreed and will be held accountable. Anyone who uses software knows how digital contracts facilitate agreeing to something without reading it. 

Families have filed a petition calling for a special board meeting to seek input on the revision and enforcement of both the Academic Integrity Policy and the 24 Hour Code.

All of this has led to a review of the policies and procedures through what Alfaro calls a “normal process” of clarification and tightening. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are trying to preserve the lesson at the heart of the incident. When Alamo Heights High School Principal Cordell Jones saw the confusion continually spreading, he sent a letter to the high school community after Thanksgiving, .

“How we handle this situation and others is very important. We will continue to be a school and district that stresses character, integrity, and high academic standards while realizing our children are still developing. Our students will learn from their mistakes and avoid making them again,” the letter stated.

The policies are written in a way, Alfaro explained, that does not gloss over teenage mistakes, but also aims to prevent creating a culture of shame.

“It’s something that needs to be dealt with, not shamed,” Alfaro said, “That’s not an appropriate response if we want to get kids out the other end.”

Many would agree that appropriate consequences are the tools for building sound decision-making skills. The notion that an entire population of 14- and 15-year-olds should make the right choice every single time is unrealistic. Teenage risk-taking – whether it’s driving too fast, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, pushing back on family traditions, or whatever behavior makes them feel autonomous – is a developmental reality, and the consequences are tools for training.

“Character is not being perfect. It is not never making mistakes. It is learning from your mistakes and growing wisdom as you learn,” Alfaro said. 

The Culture

Cheating, whether through plagiarizing or another technique, is one of the key temptations high schoolers will encounter as they learn how to be people with integrity. Alfaro is a 20-year teaching veteran, married to a teacher in another district, with friends in classrooms across the city. Every one of them has to work with students on academic integrity, he said.

“High school students plagiarize all the time. It’s the bane of teachers’ existences and they deal with it every year,” Alfaro said.

In school, the temptation to take the easy road or to cut corners is complicated by the gray area of what can be found online. Is Wikipedia cheating? What about generic online study guides? Would it have been plagiarism if the students had cited the author of the PDF?

As they develop wisdom and integrity, students also have to understand the importance of character more than performance.

Immediately after the scandal broke, Alfaro’s office was flooded with questions about the long-term consequences for the kids. Many parents felt that the three week ban on extracurriculars was too extreme. Others jumped ahead to college: Would they now have to answer “yes” when college applications asked if they had been disciplined for infractions of academic integrity?

After consulting with six other schools, Alamo Heights decided that this infraction did not merit the kind of disciplinary action said college applications often refer to, such as suspension.

The need for discipline in some form, however, is clear. When confronted with the PDF and their own copied answers, most students already knew what they had done was wrong.

The extracurricular suspensions will stand as a reminder that actions do have consequences. (Also a reminder to read what you sign, even if it’s electronic.)

Alfaro’s hope is that by stopping short of more extreme consequences, the discussion can stay productive.

This is where parents can be particularly helpful. When students see that their parents are more concerned with their character than their grades and résumés, it gives them one less incentive to cheat, and one more incentive to work hard.

Alfaro wants parents, teachers, and students to understand the greater purpose of academic integrity, and their education as a whole.

“We’re here to teach (students) important things,” Alfaro said. “I need to know what (students) think, not what someone online thinks.”

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.