Ethical Dilemmas for Classroom Discussion

by Charis Denison

This is #20 of an ongoing series of moral and ethical discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. These situations 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)

knew about secrets. She had a best friend and they had a lot of secrets between them. That’s what made them best friends. So when Bethany, a classmate of hers, asked her to keep her secret, Stacy knew how important it was that she honor that. But this secret felt different. Stacy had a feeling in her stomach that told her that maybe she should tell someone else.

It started when the two girls were changing for PE class. All fourth graders had PE after activity time and Stacy was always the last one to finish her activity—except for Bethany. She always seemed to fiddle around and end up at the changing lockers last also. One afternoon as they were changing, Bethany and Stacy were joking around and then Bethany grew quiet. She asked Stacy if she had any special secrets with anyone. Stacy thought of Lindsay, her best friend, and answered that yes, of course she did. But then Bethany asked if she had any secrets with a grown-up that she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. This confused Stacy.

Stacy couldn’t imagine a secret she would share with a grown-up that she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else. What would that be? Once, her Aunt took her out for ice cream instead of taking her to library like her Mom had told her to do. They decided to keep that a secret. But that was all she could come up with. She asked Bethany if her secret with a grown-up was that sort of secret.

Bethany’s face turned red and she started to cry. She told Stacy that sometimes she plays at the neighbors’ house when her parents have to go on errands now and then. She told her that one time Mrs. Burns wasn’t there and Mr. Burns played with her instead. They played a game where they were supposed to touch each other in places that made Bethany feel uncomfortable. When the game was over, Mr. Burns told Bethany the game was something just for them, and he told her that they weren’t going to tell anyone else because it was their special secret. Bethany explained that sometimes she felt bad inside when she knew she was going to play at the Burns’ house. She had played the game twice more since that first time. She wanted to talk to her mom or dad, or tell Mr. Burns she didn’t want to play the game anymore, but Mr. Burns was nice to her and she didn’t want to get in trouble or make him mad or sad by telling their secret.

Stacy asked Bethany what she was going to do and Bethany just shook her head. Then she said, “You have to promise not to tell anyone I told you Stacy. Promise.” Stacy promised. Just then, the P.E. teacher called their names and Bethany slammed her locker shut and ran toward the gym.

Stacy was left confused and a bit lost. She didn’t know Bethany well but she knew her well enough to be upset to see her so sad and confused. She knew how important keeping a secret was but she had a bad feeling inside of her stomach that she got sometimes when she knew she needed to talk to her parents. Should she keep Bethany’s secret or talk to a grown up? Bethany might be angry and hurt if she told her secret, but what if the bad feeling inside her was right and Mr. Burns was doing something wrong? Now Stacy wished Bethany had never told her anything. She slammed her locker shut and walked slowly toward the gym where she could see Bethany saving a place for her.

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

© Copyright Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. All rights are reserved. The material in this website is intended for non-commercial educational use. It may not be republished on the web or anywhere else without written permission of the publisher. Please see our terms of use.

(this is for you)

I have had several educators and youth workers request a case that dealt with inappropriate behavior between adults and minors. While this subject often feels like a virtual mine field, it is relevant, and unfortunately, prevalent.

Depending on the age group of students, this case can stay as general as you like or get as specific as you feel is warranted. The most important objective of this case and/or lesson is to help kids listen to and honor their feelings about what feels right and what feels wrong. The second most important objective is to teach youth that it is NEVER their responsibility to act on those feelings by themselves, and that their parents, teachers, and other adults they trust are there for them to help with situations like this.

When I work with 3-6 grades, I use language like “good touch” and “bad touch” and clarify what those might be in very safe language. For middle school, I talk more about translating the language of “good” and “bad” touch into “instinct”. This can be an introduction of what I call “ emotional literacy” and that it is imperative for us to listen to our gut. We all have an internal ethical and moral compass. That compass can be moved off course if it has a strong enough influence affecting it. We talk about what some of those influences might be; peer pressure, authority figures, self-esteem, loneliness, etc. So we talk about tools and resources we have to rely on to get us back on course again. Most of all, if something feels wrong, it probably is. Our gut instinct is there to protect us. It means it’s time to talk to an adult you trust.

A last note: when I do any lesson that is related to this subject, I watch students even more closely than usual. More than a few times I see someone looking down, needing to leave for water or the restroom, or someone who lingers at the end of the lesson. These are the kids we are using this case for. Seek them out gently and privately and ask them how they are feeling. They will often do the rest. If they don’t, encourage them to seek out an adult they feel safe about talking to. Emphasize the importance of not staying silent.

At a high school level, I take the subject of emotional literacy, apply it to the specifics of this case and then have them brainstorm, write about, or share other situations where they might feel something isn’t right but they ignore that instinct. What factors contributed to their ignoring that feeling? Then, we talk about the importance of emotional assertiveness vs. intellectual assertiveness. It is easy to articulate a point in a thesis statement. It is far more difficult to articulate your values and ethics when you feel your emotional or physical safety is at risk.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.)

(These questions are aimed at a younger age group. See above notes to modify questions for older students.)

  • Do you think Stacy should tell Bethany’s secret to someone? Is that what you would do?
  • What do you think is making it hard for Bethany to speak up about Mr. Burns?
  • What do you think kids should do if someone older than they are does something that makes them uncomfortable?
  • If you were going to go to an adult about something that you were scared or confused about, who would that person be? What makes him/her a good person to go to?
  • Have you or someone you know ever been uncomfortable or in a situation you knew didn’t feel right? How did you react?
  • Have you ever had to make a choice that you might lose a friendship over? What happened? Are you proud and/or satisfied with the choice you made?
  • Have you ever had a “gut feeling?” What was the situation? What do you think it was protecting you from?


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:



© Copyright Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. All rights are reserved. The material in this website is intended for non-commercial educational use. It may not be republished on the web or anywhere else without written permission of the publisher. Please see our terms of use.