My day started with an interview with Bernice Hillier from the CBC Newfoundland Morning show about the recent case of exam cheating at Exploits Valley High school in Grand Falls-Windsor, NL. According to a CBC news article, there was an alleged break and enter at the school last week during the school’s mid-term exam period.
CBC news quoted the school principal, Mr. Paul Lewis, as saying:
“Early last week, the school administration became aware that unauthorized entry was recently gained to our school and individuals accessed sensitive curriculum-related school materials,” read Lewis’ letter to parents. “We understand that copies of the exams were made available and a number of students may have chosen to access this stolen material in advance of the exams.” (See the full CBC article.)
Based on my research related to academic misconduct, it is fairly rare for students to break into a school to steal exams these days. It is more likely that exam questions or answers would be posted online, as happened at Brandon University last fall. Breaking and entering is a criminal offence and in the case of the Newfoundland high school the RCMP are involved, according to the media.
As I reflect on this morning’s interview, here are some lessons to be learned from this case:
Schools need an Exam Security Protocol
The CBC article talked about an alleged break and enter. I could not help wondering how secure the exams were inside the school. Were they easily accessible once someone was within the building? Or were they secured in a locked filing cabinet within a locked office?
K-12 school districts and schools can help uphold academic integrity by developing a clear exam security protocol, such as this one at the University of Regina. It can be a plain language document that outlines what the expectations are for keeping testing materials secure throughout the life cycle of an exam.
At the very least, physical copies of printed exams need to be kept in locked filing cabinets within a locked office, with the keys stored in a separate location.
Make the Exam Security Protocol public
Then, ensure the Exam Security Protocol is publicly posted online. The University of Regina does this by posting their protocol as a downloadable .pdf. This makes the expectations for exam security clear to administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders.
It also helps to communicate to the public that schools care about academic integrity from an organizational perspective.
Have a Communications Plan in place to address academic misconduct
Because there is an expectation for schools to uphold public trust it is important for school boards to have a communications plan in place and ready to roll out instantly when there are breaches of integrity. Having clear, positive, pro-active messaging in place and a plan to communicate that to the public is critical.
If a school board or a school never needs to implement the plan, that is all the better, but it is important to know what messages to convey, along with how and when, and to whom to convey them. Whether it is tax payer dollars or private school fees that fund education, parents and community members contribute to education. So it is important to have mechanisms in place to communicate openly and transparently about how violations of academic misconduct are handled in a positive and pro-active manner. Upholding public trust is crucial when an academic misconduct crisis occurs.
Engage the public in conversations about how schools uphold integrity
At the beginning of the radio interview this morning Bernice Hillier indicated that the school had declined to comment. Although I have research expertise on the topic of academic integrity, it is also important to get a local perspective. (Even though I grew up in Atlantic Canada, I have lived in Calgary for a long time. I am the first to admit that at times my knowledge of local news is limited.)
Not only is a local perspective important, it is imperative for school leaders to take the opportunity to communicate strong messages of integrity when there are breaches. I was disappointed to hear that neither the Exploits Valley High school, nor the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) would engage with the media, apart from a written statement.
Schools and school boards have an obligation to work continuously to maintain public trust. A breach of integrity is also an opportunity to engage with stakeholders. Key messages to communicate at a time of crisis like this include:
- Our students are our first priority. We care about our students and we are here for them.
- We are committed to supporting our students to learn in ethical ways.
- As a school community, here are the steps we are taking to uphold academic integrity…
- As a school community, here is what we have learned from this incident…
Incidents like this are as much an opportunity for school communities, as for students, to learn and grow. Closing ranks and declining to communicate don’t actually do much to restore public trust in the education system.
If school administrators want students to be honest and transparent about what happened, then they could choose to lead by example by being engaging in open communication themselves. This might include:
- Town Hall assembly for parents, students and community members.
- Open and transparent communications about the lessons learned by the school and school district.
- Public statement about the changes that will be made going forward to uphold academic integrity within the school.
There is no doubt that breaking and entering is a serious matter and a crime. This might also be an opportunity to engage educational leaders in conversations about whether a restorative justice approach might be appropriate in a case such as this.
Breaches of academic integrity present opportunities for learning and for community building. There is still time to address this situation in a positive and pro-active manner that keeps the focus on student learning and student success.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.