Zipped lips on cheating, bullying sink ships
Public school systems in American society often are expected to fill roles that have little to do with reading, writing or 'rithmatic. Or history, the sciences or the arts, for that matter.
This month, results of a survey of about 1,000 students from Staples High School and the two middle schools spilled out chunks of data on what most adults would call destructive behavior -- alcohol and marijuana use, cigarette smoking, academic cheating and bullying.
Much of the attention focused on substance use: 60 percent of Staples juniors reported using alcohol in the 30 days before the April survey; nearly 40 percent of sophomores said they did, too. Both figures are markedly higher than national averages.
Moreover, nearly 40 percent of juniors -- 16- and 17-year-olds -- said they had used marijuana during the same period.
While the figures are alarming, it clearly is the role of parents -- not school officials -- to supervise and rein in teenagers who are engaging in behaviors that are illegal and dangerous. Last we checked, the vending machines at Staples and at Bedford and Coleytown middle schools were dispensing neither beer, vodka nor cannabis. Nor were those substances available for the swiping in storage areas.
What should alarm school officials, however, are two areas of the survey that directly impact education and behavior in their buildings -- academic cheating and bullying.
Half of Staples juniors -- a full 50 percent -- reported they had cheated on a test in the previous year. The cheating data shows a steady progression as teens rise through the school system: 19 percent of seventh graders; 24 percent in eighth; 28 percent in ninth and 48 percent in 10th.
That progression may reflect the pressure to achieve good grades that grows as teenagers approach college-application time -- which in Westport carries high expectation.
Beyond cheating on tests, an Internet society where endless data is available at the click of a mouse is fraught with opportunity to plagiarize essays and research papers.
Cheating is a fraud, the same kind that in the financial world and on tax returns could land one in jail.
The survey results also suggest that bullying continues to be a serious issue in the schools. National data indicate that bullying peaks during middle school years and gradually decreases in high school.
Yet 40 percent of Staples sophomores and juniors said the following statement was "mostly true" or "definitely true": "In my school, kids are often bullied."
The wording does not suggest 40 percent of those students have been bullied; rather that there is broad awareness of frequent bullying.
Westport should be especially vigilant about bullying. It was only last spring that a Bedford Middle School girl's desperate video about her being bullied went viral on the Internet.
More alarming, perhaps, than the cheating and bullying data is that school officials refuse to discuss it. School Superintendent Elliot Landon failed to return phone calls seeking comment. Other educators who had opinions refused to speak publicly.
Westport has one of the state's most gifted student bodies. Those kids also bear the burden of very high expectation.
If academic fraud and bullying is as prevalent as students admit, the refusal by school officials to talk about it only serves to perpetrate it.