Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

PLAGIARISM: Everyone’s Doing It

This is #8 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)

Phoebe is a senior and president of the student body. Lately she is becoming more and more overwhelmed by her rigorous AP course load and college applications. She has been sick for the past month and has fallen behind in many of her classes. Her application to Brown University and her AP Art History paper are both due on Monday. It’s Sunday now. Phoebe makes a tough decision and plagiarizes the entire section on Impressionism on her paper, finishes her application and goes to bed. On Monday, Phoebe turns in her paper.

By lunchtime, Phoebe’s AP Art History teacher had asked to see her. He quickly realized the fact that a large portion of her paper was plagiarized and confronts her about it. Phoebe bursts into tears and explains to him about all the pressures of being sick, taking five AP’s, playing three varsity sports and being president of the student body. Brown is her number one choice for college and she felt she had to make a choice.

Phoebe’s teacher turns her in to the school honor council. She is very remorseful and volunteers to give a speech to the student body apologizing for what she has done. She also begs the honor council not to write to the colleges that she has applied to, as she has worked so hard throughout her high school career and is applying to the most competitive colleges and universities.

What should the honor council do?

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.


(this is for you)

And so we enter the muddy waters of academic honesty and integrity. This case can be molded to suit your school’s needs but its main dilemma is a powerful one for high school students.

Again, if we as character educators are to ask if cheating is wrong, most if not all students will agree, absolutely. However, the immediate response to this case with most of my kids is pure empathy for Phoebe and that she is an exception. It is interesting to watch how some students will change their thought process when they are acting on behalf of an “honor council” rather than simply talking about Phoebe’s plight.”

The idea of the “exception” can then be explored in great depth. So, who gets the exception? A great idea is to have students come up with responses in groups on behalf of the honor council, and then to complicate the situation by adding that an African American senior on full scholarship also is applying to Brown, is academically strong, and has had no disciplinary action in all four years. Brown will not take both students from such a small school. Does that information inform your decision in any way?

This usually provides a lively turn in class discussion and some good arguing. You can ask them what other details might change their response. And finally, if it is so easy to change your ideas about academic integrity, what IS academic integrity?

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

  • If you were on the honor council what would your decision be in this case?
  • Does the fact that Phoebe is student body president affect your decision? In what way?
  • Do you think expectations should be higher for Phoebe based on her position in the school?
  • Have you ever known someone who cheated in some way but felt justified? Did you agree with this person?
  • Have you ever felt justified in cheating in school? What contributed to your feelings?
  • Would your decision be the same if you had known about the second student applying to Brown?
  • How would you explain to others the exception that was made for Phoebe if others were more severely punished?
  • Have any of you been in a class where you know someone who cheated and got a higher grade than you? What did you do? Would you do the same thing now?


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 previous dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVDs 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 both the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and 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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