When the story of the Alamo Heights cheating scandal first landed on my desk, I passed. I convinced my editors at the Rivard Report that this was not news and that it belonged in a high school newspaper.

Then, when Alamo Heights parents started a petition to review the school’s Academic Integrity Policy and the 24 Hour Code of Leadership, the story found its way back to my desk. This time Robert Rivard was not taking no for an answer. He didn’t want a sensational headline. He wanted a thoughtful article, one with context. Turns out, he was right the first time. Now I was playing catch-up on a story of some complexity, one easy to misreport as a simple story of cheating and its consequences.

Alamo Heights makes for an easy target in San Antonio, but I’ve found in my own reporting that many of the stereotypes don’t hold up. Some do, but others do not. This was not a story about privileged kids living by their own rules and not paying the price. It would be easy to shame them with ridicule and scorn.

Instead I went to talk to Frank Alfaro, assistant superintendent at Alamo Heights ISD. One of the key takeaways from my interview with Alfaro was his distinction of guilt versus shame and the nuanced effects of both on the developing brain.

The most common way that researchers differentiate between shame and guilt is the focus: guilt focuses on the action, shame on the self. For those who want to know more, check out Brené Brown’s TED Talk.

Guilt, according to research, is healthy and necessary for functional, social humans. We wrong each other, and empathy dictates that we feel badly about that. Shame, while also a sign that we are functional humans, is toxic and drives us away from community and into hiding. Shame wants to hide or protect the self, which has been deemed bad or unworthy.

Guilt focuses on the bad things people did and how they don’t square with collective ethics and/or hurt someone. Shame is the pain people feel when they think about what their actions say about them, or what others will think of them.

Shame whether institutionalized or unintentional, has shown to be ineffective in school discipline. 

Alamo Heights faculty and staff also are aware of the correlation between shame and depression, addiction, and even suicide.

They are probably aware that privileged children often suffer from maladaptive perfectionism, which is closely related to shame. These kids feel pressure to be perfect, and that deep-rooted sense that they are not perfect nags at them constantly.

Alamo Heights staff members have put best practices into action in the district wellness center, where students can get clinical help for substance abuse, depression, and other psycho-emotional issues. They call their wellness program “Breaking the Silence,” because they want to create a safe place for students to talk about things they would rather hide. 

Alfaro explained to me that this principle informed all disciplinary actions within the district.

And Alamo Heights is not the only school district or educational institution pursuing this kind of culture.

I recently went to a workshop on best practices for discipline in middle school classrooms. Experts pointed out how suspension or other removals from the classroom have the opposite effect many hope it will have. In these formative years, the researcher explained, the students’ identities are malleable. If they adopt the label “the bad kid” or “the stupid kid” then they may live into that identity, rather than trying to change it.

That is the power of shame.

If a school district embraces disciplinary tactics that promote shame, they are home-growing their own problems.

In shame’s intractable shadow, some teens will weave a dark armor of anger, vengeance, and spite. Others will decide that teachers are the enemy. Some will decide that if they must be the “bad kid” then they are going to be the “baddest kid” there ever was. Some will cultivate their own sense of worthlessness.

These same principles hold true even in prison populations, where researchers found that feelings of guilt reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Feelings of shame often precede a repeat offense.

Guilt points to a behavior and says, “This is wrong.” It can be a valuable tool, according to the American Psychological Association, because the pain of guilt is outward facing. It creates sorrow for the pain we cause others. It eats at us, even if we don’t get caught, because it says that wrong is wrong, no matter who sees. It is guilt, not shame, that prevents “affluenza,” the argument that excessive privilege renders a person ethically stunted.

Consequences are necessary to remind students that guilt is real, and that it must be dealt with, Alfaro said.

When Alamo Heights High School freshmen were caught cheating on their homework, there were two outcries.

One was from parents who believed consequences were unfairly or arbitrarily meted out. The call for clarity and consistency is certainly needed, as AHISD administrators have admitted.

As parents, our instinct to protect the cub is strong, and it’s hard to let our kids feel the pain they bring on themselves. When that pain is made worse by what seems to be an unfair system, it’s tempting to shift focus in an unproductive way. 

When I was in high school, I was suspended due to a 24 Hour Code of Conduct: I had smoked cigarettes on a beach trip with my friends. When my coach found out, I confessed and was suspended from school for three days. I lost a point from my overall semester GPA for every day of suspension. I graduated two GPA points behind the Valedictorian.

It was really tempting for my parents to fight a policy under which five cigarettes on a long weekend would likely cost me college scholarships. But they saw how keen I was to go from perpetrator to victim, and they didn’t take the bait. That shift in focus, however merited, would have been detrimental.

Another study demonstrated that even shame could be productive, if it was accompanied by a sense of outward facing responsibility the same way that guilt is. In prison inmates, if the shame was overshadowed by a sense of victimhood or helplessness, then recidivism was likely.

If you can use victimhood to assuage your guilt, you cannot grow from your mistake. It is up to those who know their children best to make sure that guilt can do its productive work, even as they sign the petition.

The other outcry over the incident was from the community, both within and outside Alamo Heights – Never mind the fact that there were people who seemed to naively believe that copying homework answers is something that never occurs in their own schools. The social media pile-on was surprisingly mean-spirited, even for the internet.

People continually highlighted the socio-economics of Alamo Heights, as though the irony were too delicious to pass up. In some ways it illustrated the kind of unproductive shaming that Alamo Heights was trying to avoid.

We’ve become comfortable with shaming on social media, in the comment sections of articles, and on posts. Online, the isolation and pain of shame is amplified by comments made from the safety of a screen, aimed at a faceless schlemiel from a news story. By the sleep-deprived glow of a late-night screen, we declare an offense beyond forgiveness. 

From where I sit, the socio-economics of Alamo Heights had nothing to do with the cheating scandal, but everything to do with why it became news.

Cheating occurs everywhere. The consequences were a result of Alamo Heights ISD’s attempts to enforce best practices in student discipline, and advocates have called for this no-shaming approach in low-income schools as well.

If, and that is a massive “if,” one does feel that wealthy children should be disciplined differently than children whose parents have fewer resources, they should know that 20% of children in Alamo Heights ISD are economically disadvantaged. There would be low-income students, some from unstable households, caught up any zero-tolerance policy designed to punish kids from whom they “expect better.” 

I wonder if our schadenfreude revealed more than we wanted it to as we sharpened our knives at the feast of public shame heaped upon a school district with a reputation for wealth. Perhaps we should interrogate the little sense of glee we feel when “the mighty have fallen.”

These are not the mighty. These are 14-year-old kids with the same developing prefrontal cortex as other 14-year-olds. Many have been nurtured by lots of books and organic vegetables, sure, but these are not the mighty. These are just as much our children as the children of Edgewood and South San. Just because their school board has not failed them doesn’t make them the mighty, and it does not mean that shame will do them good.

Avatar photo

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.