Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #15 of an ongoing series of discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. The situations presented are very real and are changed monthly. Please try them out with your students and share your results with us. You can find the complete archive of dilemmas here.

(present this to your students)

is a student in a school district where his mother is on the school board. Recently, three of his classmates posted a web site that openly attacks some of the teachers and students, using explicit and offensive language. It even goes as far as predicting which gay students will be the first to die of AIDS. Remarks about several teachers are scathing, suggesting that one fantasizes about having sex with young girls and that two married teachers are having an affair. The site includes disgusting graphics.

Several weeks ago David learned the identities of the three students who created the website when one of them accidentally said something to him in a conversation. The other two quickly corralled David and pressured him not to reveal their names. He agreed, not thinking much about it at the time. David used to be close to one of the three students, but that friendship has faded.

Now, the school principal has obtained a program that allows him to identify each person who has visited the website. He is asking students to come forward with the names of the creators of the site, and if no one does, he is going to question each student who visited the site. David is one of those who did visit the site. He realizes he may be the only student who knows the names of the three kids who created the site. He can lie and say he doesn’t know, or he can break his promise not to tell.

David has always thought of himself as an ethical person with a pretty clear sense of right and wrong. Right now, however, he feels that either choice will end in disaster. What should David do?

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

(this is for you)

One of the best definitions of an ethical choice is one that is a “choice between two rights” or a “choice between two wrongs.” I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard my students say, while discussing a case, “ Well, this guy’s screwed either way.”

I borrowed this case from a great school I worked with recently in Atlanta. I used it in my classroom just last week and was, again struck by the power of peer loyalty. Many of my students who fully acknowledged the seriousness of the offense still could not bring themselves to turn in their classmates. However, what really struck me was that one my fiercest students around the issue of “snitching” was the one who turned the discussion around by saying he would turn in his peers. It was an exciting moment. His point was that his most important moral guide was peer loyalty, and that by turning in the three students he was being loyal to a larger group of peers. He may not have established friendships with them but he might want to later. His point was that this choice was morally correct (to him) on both sides. He based his choice on how many of his classmates would be affected positively by what he decided to do.

This case also allows you to have a rich discussion around the concept and definition of community. You can never have too many of those. What are our ethical obligations when we join a community? What prevents us from honoring those obligations?


(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.

  • How might David make sense of this situation?
  • What do you consider to be David’s responsibility?
  • A common definition used to describe an ethical choice is a “choice between two rights.” How might you apply this to David’s situation?
  • What would you do if you were in David’s place? How would that choice affect the others in this case?
  • How might your decision be affected by whether or not you were close with one of the teachers or students that were humiliated on the site?
  • How bound would you feel by the promise you made to the three students?
  • Have you or someone you know ever been in a situation where you were expected to turn someone in? Share what that was like.
  • Is there ever a point where the good of a community is more important to honor than the good of an individual relationship?


SHARE YOUR RESULTS WITH US. How did your students resolve this dilemma? Did anything surprising happen? Tell us about your discussion and we may publish your comments. Click here to send us an email.


For some very helpful articles about conducting productive, lively, meaningful classroom discussions (including Socratic method), click here.


For an archive of dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVD’s that will give your students a lot to think about, talk about, and write about, visit Live Wire Media.



haris (KAIR-iss) Denison, founder of Prajna Consulting, is an expert in Community Involvement, Human Development, and Ethics.  She has built her experience primarily by working with schools and non-profits for the past 15 years.

After initially teaching middle and high school English and Creative Writing, Charis began to develop curricula and publish articles related to social justice, ethics, human development, community involvement, and experiential education.  She has received national recognition for her work in those fields, as well as for her community-based work with American teens and Tibetan refugees in Central Asia.

Charis co-wrote Tolerance for Others, a middle school human development text, with Leni Wildflower.  She currently works as the national Service-Learning consultant for the Durango Institute for Co-Curricular Education.

Charis also teaches at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, and runs Prajna Consulting.  Through Prajna she consults with schools, parents, students, and businesses both organizationally and individually.  Charis also facilitates workshops and speaks on a wide variety of topics.

Charis can be reached at:


Live Wire Media, our sister site, offers award-winning, research-based video DVDs, curriculum modules, interactive software, and other helpful tools.

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