Thursday, May 3, 2012

Incompetent School Administrators vs. Self-Entitled Lawyer's Kid: Talk about a Battle with No One to Root For!

From California (where else?) comes a story of a school that actually sought to punish a student for plagiarism… and, predictably, got sued for it. A sophomore at Sequoia High School in Redwood got caught having copied someone else’s homework. The boy is in an honors program, and the prescribed punishment for cheating is removal from that program. He will, perish the thought, be forced to finish the year in regular English. Oh, the humanity!

The boy’s father, however, is an idiot asshole attorney, one Jack Berghouse, who just couldn’t resist the urge to strut his stuff. He has filed suit against the school district, its superintendent, and the school principal for having the audacity to enforce the rules specified in the “Academic Honesty Pledge” signed by both the boy and his mother. Ah, but according to Berghouse, the school seems to have two parallel and mutually exclusive policies, one of which says that a student will be removed from class only after a second offense.

It may be that Berghouse has a legal argument, and Jack Marshall, from whose blog article I first heard of this case, is right to argue that “technicalities are important… when important consequences are involved.” That said, I think he’s wrong to wonder if we should “condemn Jack Berghouse for being a good lawyer.”

Why? Because, from where I sit, he isn’t a good lawyer. A good lawyer would have the best interests of his client in mind at all times. What Berghouse has done is to make the fact that his son is a self-important prick—he reportedly posted to Facebook that the school was guilty of “tyranny” for… um… busting him for being a dishonest jackass—national news. Seriously, the people who work in admissions offices for the nation’s top colleges and universities are a pretty savvy lot, often themselves alumni of the schools they now represent. If I’m working in a place like that, I’m checking out news articles all the time.

Here’s what happens if Berghouse isn’t quite such a pompous ass: the school offered to admit the son to the prestigious International Baccalaureate program beginning next year, with no mention of the cheating incident, but he cannot return to Honors English… this year: the story says he will “still be left out of the advanced studies sophomore English class” (emphasis mine). That’s… OMG… another month or so! No college worth a damn cares what section of English a kid took as a sophomore if he’s got an IB degree and good board scores. But Berghouse is too blinded by the worst of lawyerly and/or parenting instincts to see that: he’s got to win, even if winning costs more than not playing.

Here’s what happens now: Prestigious University gets an application from some kid from Sequoia High School. “Wait, Bob, wasn’t that the place where the kid cheated and his father the shyster got him off on a technicality?” “Yeah, Rachel, I think you’re right. Let me Google that… yep… father’s name was Berghouse. What’s the father’s name on that application?” So—is Prestigious University going to be more or less interested in a prospective student who thinks that it’s tyranny to enforce rules of basic honesty and who has a father who’s the stereotypical lawyer, ready to sue anybody for any reason? This time, it’s for enforcing the rules about cheating. Next time, it’s for giving Special Snowflake Berghouse a well-deserved C in Biology or keeping him off the debate team for fabricating evidence.

Moreover, many top colleges have an alumni interview as part of the application process. I did this as a high school senior, and I've conducted a handful of these interviews as an alumnus. And guess what? The alumni interviewer lives in (or near) your town. So even if the news of this case doesn't find its way back to Cambridge or New Haven or Hanover, local news coverage will make it reasonably likely that grads in the Redwood area will be on the lookout for this kid in a year and a half or so.

Perhaps Berghouse’s legal case is sound. I don’t understand how it could be, but I’m not a lawyer, and I do understand that law and justice are discrete concepts. It strikes me, however, that one of two things must be true. Either the document signed by student and parent clearly states a zero tolerance policy, in which case the signatures would, it seems to me, over-ride any possible ambiguity elsewhere… or the pledge itself is ambiguous, in which case why would two members of a lawyer’s family sign it?

Wherever the confusion lies, it’s pretty clear that in adopting a new policy last year, the school missed one place in the old guidelines that just didn’t get updated. Having sat on Bylaws Committees a number of times, I can tell you that such omissions are virtually a fact of life.

But where normal people see an unintentional mistake, self-important jackasses like Berghouse see a loophole. According to the article in the San Mateo County Times, “By drafting a confusing and poorly written honesty pledge, Berghouse said, Sequoia teachers have cheated far more” than, presumably, his obviously cheating offspring. Would someone please slap this asshole? There’s a difference between an honest mistake and an intentional act of dishonesty. And it’s not that the former is worse. Anyone but Berghouse is capable of seeing that distinction. He, however, is a walking lawyer joke.

What is particularly disingenuous, however, is the idea that Berghouse purports to be surprised by the public’s indignation—“I had no freaking idea this would happen.” This suggests of one of two things: that we know where junior learned his dishonesty, or that Papa Berghouse is dumber than an anvil. Actually, the former is pretty clear: we can start with the preposterous claim that the lawsuit is “for the other kids at Sequoia.” Really? Then you’re demanding the re-instatement of the other three students who were caught at the same time? Volunteering your time to re-write the pledge and eliminate the contradictions? Showing appropriate parenting skills and demanding as much accountability from your spawn as from the school? No… didn’t think so.

But it just might be that the latter is also true. There is a particular breed of people who just don’t get it that being a self-entitled jerk does not endear one to the community. Most people, however, don’t like people who get off on technicalities. Hell, I’m a civil libertarian and I don’t like people who get off on technicalities. And let’s say the public reaction isn’t going to go all soft and fuzzy when they find out it’s a lawyer’s kid who doesn’t think he needs to play by the same rules as everybody else.

This isn’t to say the school gets off scot-free, however. First off, there’s that zero tolerance policy, which is almost by definition a stupid idea. Also, of course, the argument is often made that the punishment for such offenses is disproportionate to the crime. This is one of the few times that this claim might actually have merit. The kid is what, 15? 16? He did something really stupid once, and is punished by getting booted out of an English program he otherwise earned? For copying a homework assignment?

I have something of a reputation for identifying and prosecuting plagiarists, and even I think the penalty may be a little steep. There’s a difference between copying a friend’s journal entry and appropriating a term paper. I see both not infrequently. The former leads to a reprimand and a lowered grade; the latter generally results in an F in the course and a formal report to the Dean. Different punishments for different degrees of transgression: what a concept!

Moreover, school policy is messed up in two ways. First, assuming Berghouse is correct in his assertion, the language is self-contradictory, thereby (possibly) allowing little weasels like Berghouse’s son to game the system. But, more fundamentally, the policy, even if well-written, employs the wrong strategies.

If you want to punish plagiarism and cheating, the penalty should show up on the transcript. Take a few points off his English grade for the quarter—fail him, even—and leave him in the course. If it’s an anomaly, no one will care. Although I was a generally very good student in high school, I got a 70 in Math one quarter (not for cheating: it was just that Analytic Geometry and I weren’t exactly friends). Not a single school as much as wondered what had happened; I was accepted everywhere I applied, including the Ivy League college I ultimately attended.

More to the point, there’s no good to be achieved by putting this young man in a regular section of English. It might, might be different in math or science, something less inter-active. But even at the high school level, a good English class is likely to be something of a seminar, meaning that the contributions of individual students matter. Students learn from each other, with guidance from the teacher. That means everyone in Honors English is being punished because of this incident. And everyone in the regular English class gets to deal with passive-aggressive MiniBerghouse, who is bored as well as arrogant and dishonest. Jolly.

No one wins here. The school looks bad for developing a frankly rather dumb, inflexible, and apparently poorly written policy; the district has to divert funds from its educational programs to defend a lawsuit against the likes of Berghouse, who appears to be everything that is worst about lawyers and parents rolled into one smug little package. The boy is punished not merely by having such a pain in the ass for a father, but may, because of the publicity this case generates (I’m happy to help, by the way), actually be more likely to be turned down by his chosen university.

More importantly, however, the entire American education system suffers, as schools across the country increasingly take note of the perils of enforcing standards—whether they be for scholarship, integrity, whatever. And that portends a bleaker future for all of us.

1 comment:

karl said...

Well said. Look forward to more postings.