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Cheating on the SAT: A Moral or Legal Crime?

Recently, a Long Island SAT cheating scandal made national news.  I have been fascinated by this case since the story broke. It is a personal one as I am a graduate of Great Neck North High School, the birthplace of the scandal.  I am also interested in the case as a former prosecutor (Manhattan District Attorney’s Office) and now as a criminal defense attorney: The case is a perfect intersection of my specialty areas: white collar crime and the defense of young adults.To begin, the main question for me is, “Can cheating on a college entrance exam be categorized as a criminal act? And, if it can should it be?”

The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office has charged numerous teens with various forgery crimes and false impersonation and conspiracy charges. Their theory is that numerous students paid large sums of money for an individual to impersonate them and take the SAT in their stead.  The test-taker Sam Eshagoff has admitted to the acts and articulated his conduct on a recent 60 Minutes interview.

In our system of laws and order we have separate tribunals to address different areas of conduct.  For example, there are civil courts, criminal courts, family courts. There is also a system of rules and regulations within public school districts to address matters that occur on school grounds.

This case begs the question, should the police take action for a non-violent school related act?  And is this really a case of civil fraud that may be more appropriately addressed in a civil court?  In other words, just because a case may present criminal issues, or have criminal undertones, should it be prosecuted?  Certainly not all instances in our society that involve lying and cheating result in people in handcuffs, “perp” walks and jail sentences.

From a criminal law perspective, it would appear that Nassau County District Attorney, Kathleen Rice has appropriate jurisdiction to charge the individuals in this case.  Fundamentally, altering a public school ID card is a criminal act as it is government issued.  However, beyond that simple act of forgery, the case may be better handled as a civil fraud with civil remedies.  It is hard to imagine a county police force “policing” students taking school entrance exams.  Should taxpayer monies be devoted to the prosecutions of young people who cheat on school tests?

For one thing, ETS (Educational Testing Service) is the privately held company that makes, distributes and polices the exam.  They have security measures in place that – though clearly flawed – are responsible for the fair and proper administration of the exam.

Presumably, the Great Neck school district, too, has rules, regulations and protocols that are meant to deter and root out cheating by students.   Most, if not all schools, also have honor codes in place to address cheating by students.  As a result, students can be suspended and/or expelled for such conduct.  What seems to be most troubling is that under the rules and procedures promulgated by ETS, they will not reveal any cheating or alleged cheating by any student to a high school or prospective college.  Their honor code actually protects the alleged misconduct.

What is clear from the exposure of this scam is that ETS must re-examine its protocols.  Current high schools and prospective colleges should be made aware of the character and moral fitness of its applicants.  All schools involved should re-evaluate policies that protect cheaters, deter  future cheating scams and protect the innocent who are disadvantaged by those with the means and deceitful mind to pay another to take an exam for them.  Local authorities and taxpayers need not underwrite the enforcement of such policies.

After reading the comments to the 60 Minutes video on-line, I can see there is a lot of public outcry for change. What are your views on this recent scandal? How has it affected your school district?


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