What $20,000 can't buy

By Michael Spinner

These days, $20,000 a year can buy an awful lot. With the means to spend that type of money annually on something, anything, one should expect something outstanding in return, like a fast car, vacations abroad, or maybe a summer home. Or, for that very annual sum, or $180,000 total, one can spend nine years in the classroom receiving an education to prepare for bigger and better things in life at a Prep School like the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Not happy this week - Landon's Rob Bordley

At Landon, students receive a rigorous education with the intent being (according to the school's web-site), "upon graduation, Landon students leave the School having embraced high standards of performance and effort, as well as a strong sense of personal integrity in order to live exemplary lives in the face of an increasingly complex society."

In other words, if you go to Landon, you learn a lot for the money you are paying to attend-and rightfully so being that one can attend one of the nation's top public schools in that area of Maryland, deemed the highest educated neighborhood in the country by a recent study, free of charge. For $20,000 a year, it is expected that students receive much more than reading, writing, math, and even some great lacrosse. Perhaps it can even be assumed that Landon students learn everything they need to function in adult society.

Well everything, except perhaps, the difference between right and wrong.

Over the weekend, it was reported by the Washington Post that eight Landon seniors, including some members of its powerhouse lacrosse team, admitted to cheating on their SATs. Apparently, the efforts to cheat led to some fairly remarkable gains in scores, leading to the surfacing of the situation. At a school where the reported average SAT is 1335 and where its recent lacrosse alum are playing for or committed to playing for schools such as Duke, Penn, Princeton, Virginia, Hobart, Johns Hopkins, and Washington and Lee, such a scandal will probably ruffle more than a few feathers. Will suspensions be levied? Will expulsions occur? Will the current crop of seniors, who have committed to playing for several academically elite institutions next year, be in danger of losing their future opportunities? We'll probably find out next week.

Landon kids rush the field after the 2002 championship

What we can do, for now, is look at recent history and if history repeats itself, these kids can be in some serious trouble. One Ivy League Admissions Representative who wished to remain anonymous said that cheating on the SATs is considered a proverbial "kiss of death" for an application to an elite institution.

"I cannot speak on behalf of other schools and I am not aware of all of the specifics of this case, but what I do know is that cheating on the SAT is generally an automatic disqualification for admissions. There is no room for interpretation in these cases-you cheat on the SAT and you're out. I can't think of one exception I've ever come across," the Admissions Representative said. "There are several dynamics at work at the same time in a case like this one, the most important being that any top school prides itself on academic integrity above all. Add to the mix the competition among the best colleges and universities in the country and nobody wants to be known as the one who accepts students who have committed academic fraud, particularly when it comes to cheating on the SAT. There's a certain stigma that cheating on the SAT brings with it and the top schools generally just don't want to consider going down that avenue. And then when you place on top of it the scrutiny schools are receiving for their admissions standards for athletes and this could be a disaster for the young men involved,"

"This is a very unique time for the most competitive schools. There are not as many kids out there who possess the academic profile to attend the best schools and combine with it the means to pay more than $30,000 a year to attend these schools in our current economic situation. It's a lot of schools gunning for the same crop of students. If one school can find a way to get a leg up on another, they will. Every year we're encountered with applicants who get into some form of trouble and there are not many circumstances where we'll reject or reconsider admission. Suspension from school for cheating on an exam is generally grounds for rejection-cheating on the SAT exam is generally the big one," the Representative added.

When asked how often such a situation presents itself, the Representative said that some sort of academic fraud is commonplace but, cheating on the SAT is rare.

Lax is King at Landon

"It's a highly charged and emotional atmosphere. You have a school like Landon where a majority of graduates go to the best schools in the country and it places a lot of pressure on the kids. You have a group of parents who get together and have their own competition for colleges-placing even more competition among the kids. The kids are expected to go to a top school and go to extraordinary means to get there. The most common fraud we're seeing is where kids misrepresent themselves or their activities on resumes and it's getting to the point where we may have to do background checks on kids to make sure they are who they really are. But the SAT has this pristine image about itself where not too many endeavor to cheat. Thus, getting caught is a 'scarlet letter' of sorts. Every time I address a group of students, I make sure to spend most of my speech to address academic integrity issues such as cheating on the SAT. This is not a good situation. I'm very interested to see how the Landon School handles this."

And how the Landon School handles the situation may very well endure massive public scrutiny being that the school is not only one of the top academic prep schools in the country but also possesses perhaps the best boys' Lacrosse team as well. There are several issues coming together here that have to be handled internally before the college issue comes to light. Are the students expelled? Are they suspended? Can they play lacrosse this season?

Essentially, the decision made by the Landon School represents more than a disciplinary action but a statement on the overall value system the school holds itself to. This was not just a bad decision made by a few unruly young men or the proverbial "boys will be boys" scenario. Every year, thousands of athletes nationwide lose their seasons for cheating on exams, stealing, and social situations such as alcohol and drugs. The harsh reality is that Landon, with its honor code and its academic reputation, has no choice but to render a most severe punishment and likely hurt its most prized extra-curricular activity. What does it say about the Landon School if the lacrosse players involved here are allowed to play in 2003?

Unfortunately, we may find out, as the Washington Post article already plants the seeds of excuse to allow these kids to stay in school and play. The article offers "sources" who describe lax supervision at the test site-the Holton-Arms School-allowing the exchange of information to take place, and Landon Coach Rob Bordley who describes "peer pressure" for being a culprit and a scenario where some of the accused had been pre-approved to be admitted to schools and thus, "they didn't need higher scores."

So what?

The peer pressure excuse is simply laughable and in no need of further comment. Furthermore, the Landon School's Honor Code expressly places an expectation on its students to not engage in such activities and says, "the general ethical dictate to act honorably comprises specifically, but not exclusively, that a student will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will he tolerate those who do." The students cheated in this case, end of story.

Furthermore, where there was tight supervision, lax supervision, or no supervision at all, this is not an issue of interpretation. By the time a student sits down for the SAT exam, the value system of what is right and what is wrong should be established and no matter who is supervising the exam, the exchange of information is simply inexcusable. If not, why have an honor code to begin with? If the students involved had been pre-approved to be admitted to schools and thus did not need to improve their scores…what does that have to do with anything? Does this fact make the actions these students took acceptable? And, if the college admissions process was essentially completed, what were these students doing taking the SAT exam again anyway? Is it less contemptible to take what you don't need? Has the Landon School reached an academic Apex so lofty that taking the SAT exam is a social activity? Again-peer pressure, lax supervision, and lack of necessity of the SAT exam have nothing to do with the fact that these student-athletes made an awful decision and must be held to the same standards that everybody else is held to. If allowed to compete this season and if admitted to the top academic institutions because of their athletic standing, a particularly sad commentary on our society is made and perhaps one that the Landon School wants to avoid. The seeds to make this statement have been planted-one only wonders what's going on behind the scenes in Bethesda.

Ultimately, this is a very unfortunate situation for all involved, particularly because of what Landon Lacrosse represents in the world of lacrosse. But regardless of whether the Landon School costs $20,000 a year or is a public school that has no cost, the most prominent educator we have is encouragement when we do right and punishment when we do wrong. After years at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the nation, the young men involved in this scandal committed what is considered one of the ultimate academic wrongs among High School students today. Regardless of athletic aptitude, if integrity, character, and honor have meaning at the Landon School, the young men who acted in this fashion have likely played their final game as a Bear. But even if they get a pass at Landon, they may not be so lucky with the admissions boards of most lacrosse playing colleges.


Landon Cheating Scandal Includes Lax Players , 11/23

At Landon 2 Expelled, 8 Suspended For SAT Cheating , 11/27

Cheating Sparks SAT Probe, 11/30

Photos by John Strohsacker

November 25, 2002

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