High school's honor council turns 5

Students, faculty see evolution in cheating, plagiarism trends

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— Steamboat Springs High School adopted an honor code in fall 2003 to build an environment of academic integrity. Since then, the goal of honor council has remained consistent - "to protect the academic rights of the student body and to encourage academic honesty," said Lisa Ruff, a high school teacher and one of the honor council's faculty advisers.

Honor council is a student-run group that rules on cases of cheating and plagiarism. Ruff and high school Athletics Director Richard Lee are the faculty advisers who oversee the 20 honor council members. Honor council was established to combat cheating while also providing the opportunity for students accused of cheating, lying or plagiarism to get a fair trial. Accused students are tried by a group of their peers, instead of by teachers and administrators.

"Honor council gives students more of a chance," said senior Ahmad Akkad, the second presiding officer of the honor council.

Ruff agrees.

"Our society is based on a judicial system in which we are judged by our peers. It makes sense that our school judicial system should be the same," she said.

The honor council system allows students to plead their cases instead of being accused and convicted by a teacher without due process.

"It gives the students a voice - the chance to give their side of the story," Lee said.

A confidential and fair trial provides justice for students and teachers.

First, a student who is believed to have broken the honor code receives referral from a teacher or fellow student. The case is given to the honor code officers, who put together a group of three or four members who investigate and gather information from involved parties and witnesses.

"They try to get an overall picture of what the facts are," Lee said.

The next step is the trial, in which the accused student has an opportunity to plead his or her case. Twelve members of the honor council act as jury; no teachers, administrators, or adults are present. They take in the facts, deliberate, arrive at a decision and make recommendations for possible consequences.

As faculty advisers, Ruff and Lee oversee honor council members, but the members make the final rulings - a responsibility they take very seriously. Ruff said she is impressed with the professionalism honor council members demonstrate.

"They recognize this as an opportunity to do something good for the school and they take it very seriously," Ruff said.

Professionalism is needed to ensure confidentiality and impartiality. The system's success depends on finding committed, professional and honest students.

Each spring, honor council members, faculty and the student body nominate students in grades eight through 11. Students vote to narrow the list to five students from each grade who demonstrate the level of integrity needed to participate on honor council.

"Students are nominated for their ability to see both sides without prejudices or biases," Ruff said.

Taylor Miller-Freutel, a senior at Steamboat Springs High School and presiding officer of honor council, has been a member since her freshman year in 2004, just one year after honor council was established. In that time, Miller-Freutel has seen changes in the honor code.

"We have seen more plagiarism charges recently," she said.

The honor code was amended this year to attribute for the increase in plagiarism. Plagiarism was defined more clearly, with particular emphasis on limiting the use of direct quotes from the Internet, books and other sources. The lying provision was removed from the honor code.

"It is not our jurisdiction to determine if someone is lying or telling the truth," Miller-Freutel said.

Ruff and Miller-Freutel also said they have seen an increase in cheating and plagiarism during finals and midterms. Ruff attributes this trend to the amplified pressure students experience during those times. Under the strain of finals and midterms, students have a greater temptation to cheat, as well as more opportunities to do so, Ruff said.

Every year since the honor code was established, there have been fewer cases than the previous year, Lee said, although he wouldn't provide specific case numbers. This means students are either more careful about cheating or they are learning that their actions will have consequences, he said.

Administrators and honor council members are optimistic it's the latter.

Birch, a senior at Steamboat Springs High School, is a reporting intern at the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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