FOR weeks, a Spanish teacher at a top-rated Midwestern high school suspected that certain students were cheating. So earlier this month, as she prepared to give a standard departmental test, she took a precaution: She changed the order of questions for each class. As she graded the tests, the teacher discovered that eight of the 40 students taking the exam - 20 percent - had given identical wrong answers. When she confronted them, seven admitted cheating, explaining that they had used an answer booklet stolen from another teacher's desk last year. The assistant principal notified their parents, and the group was suspended for a day.
Last week she caught another girl cheating on a test. About the same time, two other teachers found students changing grades in their grade books. More phone calls. More suspensions.
For these errant teenagers, the exposure and discipline will probably cause only short-term embarrassment. But for the teachers involved, the incidents serve as the latest examples of a long-running effort to uphold standards of honesty - a task that does not get easier with the passing years.
``It's so traumatic to go through this,'' says the Spanish teacher, a veteran of 25 years in the classroom. ``You feel the kids hate you. It pulls a lot of time and energy away from teaching when you have to be a policeman. I think some teachers just choose to look the other way.''
Again and again during the 1970s and '80s, looking the other way became routine behavior for everyone from presidents to business tycoons. Beginning with Watergate and continuing through the Iran-Contra affair, the savings and loan hearings, and the junk-bond scandal, the code of conduct in Washington and on Wall Street appeared to be: Get away with as much as you can, and if you get caught, get off as lightly as you can.
It is an attitude neatly summed up in a recent New Yorker cartoon. A lawyer, sitting behind a desk in a plush office, tells his client, ``And, if by any chance we lose your case, we specialize in sentence reduction, parole eligibility, and locating community service that isn't too onerous.''
Those legal services may be exactly what law-breaking politicians in Arizona will need in the wake of that state's latest corruption scandal. Seven state legislators and 11 others have been indicted on charges of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes. Videotapes made during a sting operation show Rep. Bobby Raymond bragging, ``There is not an issue in this world that I [care] about.'' He adds, ``My favorite line is, `What's in it for me?'''
Another legislator, Sen. Carolyn Walker, admits on tape that her ambition is to ``die rich.'' She explains, ``I like the good life, and I'm trying to position myself that I can live the good life and have more money.... We all have our prices.''
These national scandals are dispiriting for adults. But how much more confusing they must be for teenagers, who look to adults for guidance on where the moral code stands.
Last fall, administrators at the Spanish teacher's school hired a consultant to survey teenagers' attitudes on a variety of subjects. Students claimed that 20 percent of their peers are not honest and that 15 percent lack ``a deep ethical sense of right and wrong.'' The consultant warned educators that an upper-middle-class community such as this one, despite its obvious advantages, risks creating ``contented amoral psychopaths.''
Those harsh words clearly don't apply to most students. But they serve as a reminder that teaching right and wrong remains an important obligation for parents and teachers alike.
For the Spanish teacher, the recent confrontation brought small but important rewards. Most of the parents said they appreciated the call from the assistant principal. One girl thanked the teacher for catching her and calling her mother. ``The cheating has been eating away at me,'' she admitted. Another student, identity unknown, even placed the stolen answer key in the teacher's desk - a symbolic white flag of ethical surrender.
Looking the other way would have been easier for the teacher. But maybe, just maybe, by risking the disfavor of her students, she taught them a new vocabulary word they won't soon forget - honestidad, Spanish for ``honesty.''