Public vs. Private High School Academic Misconduct

Academic misconduct is common among American high school students and has been on the rise for the last 30 years. While it's no secret that high school students cheat, is there a difference between academic fraud in public versus private high schools?

Another important question is whether public and private schools handle offenses the same way. One would assume that private schools are stricter or that students are less likely to cheat (which experts say is debatable). When students attend a high school not administered by the state, do they have the same rights when it comes to disciplinary actions?

If your school has accused you of academic misconduct, the process and potential consequences may vary depending on whether you attend a public or private high school. No matter the type of school you attend, an attorney-advisor specialized in student defense can help you defend your case.

Public vs. Private High Schools

What makes a private school private and public school public? Although many religious schools are private, not all private schools have a religious affiliation. The fundamental difference between public and private high schools is that public schools are arms of the state and local government.

High school students at public schools usually don't pay tuition, as state tax dollars fund the running of the school and salaries of staff and faculty. Private schools usually charge tuition for their students because they don't receive as much funding as public schools, however, some may still receive some federal funding.

Another key distinction between public and private schools is their administration and governance. Public schools must adhere to state or local government standards, whereas private authorities govern private schools.

Apart from these official differences between public and private high schools, there are several informal differences as well.

Common differences between public and private high schools:

  • Class size: Private schools tend to limit their class sizes to between 10-15 students, whereas public schools in major urban areas may have between 25-30 students per class, or more. Private schools may also offer more electives to students so they can explore different subjects and interests or receive more personalized attention.
  • Teaching staff: All states require a certification to teach at public schools. Private schools may not. Removing public school teachers is also difficult, whereas private school teachers tend to have one-year renewable contracts.
  • College preparation: It's difficult to measure how schools ready their pupils for college or post-high school life, but on the whole, private schools tend to emphasize pursuing university education more than public schools do. There are exceptions, however, and some public schools excel at sending students to great universities while some private schools do poorly at preparing students for post-high school life.
  • Student attitudes: Private schools usually have a selective admissions process. You will find a high concentration of students whose families value academic achievement, or who have values that match those of the school, at private schools.
  • Specialization: Private schools don't have to follow a government-mandated curriculum. As a result, they can offer unique programs in the arts and sciences. Special-education schools can provide courses adapted to their students' needs, and parochial schools often offer religious classes.

Academic Misconduct in High School

Neither public nor private high schools are strangers to academic misconduct. What typically constitutes academic misconduct in a high school setting?

Academic misconduct is broader than simply “cheating.” It's any behavior that intentionally gives a student an unfair advantage in the classroom. Forms of academic misconduct usually allow students to advance without having learned the material covered in class and wrongly convey a grasp of the knowledge. Academic misconduct isn't just about the student who acted; it can also hinder other students from fairly advancing or undermine the entire established learning process.

Most high schools have a code of conduct that includes academic misconduct, academic honesty, or academic integrity. Some schools will detail what constitutes academic misconduct and the possible consequences. Other schools may provide a sparse definition with a few “including but not limited to” examples and punishments. Schools that don't define academic misconduct clearly may expect students to act honestly and with integrity, but if they don't explicitly state what that means, it leaves gray areas that can trap otherwise innocent students.

Examples of academic misconduct:

  • Plagiarism: Plagiarism is one of the most common forms of academic misconduct; most schools address plagiarism in their code of conduct.
  • Cheating: Cheating is dishonesty in academic work and can include copying someone else's homework or trying to obtain test answers without permission. Most high school policies prohibit cheating.
  • Self-plagiarism: Some high schools won't mention self-plagiarism in their academic misconduct policy, but students can still get in trouble for it. Self-plagiarism is taking work you did for one project or class and re-using it for another without the teacher's permission.
  • Violating test conditions: Many high schools consider it to be cheating when you take an exam in an unapproved environment. Traditionally, students take tests in classrooms with teachers, so the environment is easy to control. With more high schools using remote learning, however, it's easier than ever for students to hide their smartphone off-camera during a videoconference exam. Schools will still penalize students for violating test conditions during remote learning, however.
  • Bribery: Bribery is exchanging or offering to exchange something of value to someone, so they'll change your grade, alter your transcripts, or do something dishonest and unfair concerning your academics. Some schools might mention that bribery is prohibited, but others will not.
  • Failing to protect your work: A passive form of academic misconduct may be leaving your assignment up on a school computer and someone else taking it. Even though you left it by accident and didn't intend to cheat, the school might still penalize you.
  • Unauthorized assistance or collaboration: Most classroom rules prevent students from working on assignments together when the teacher hasn't explicitly allowed it.
  • Falsifying information: Falsifying information isn't quite the same as cheating or plagiarizing. It's providing false or fraudulent information to gain an academic advantage, such as altering transcripts without permission or fabricating sources on a term paper.
  • Sabotage: Altering another student's work (changing their data, tampering with their project, etc.) is more common in classrooms that grade on a curve.

How Common is Cheating?

Many students say they feel pressured to cheat or think it's not a serious issue because it's so common. But just how common is academic misconduct in American high schools?

In a survey of 700,000 high school students between 2002-2015, academic integrity expert Dr. Donald McCabe of the International Center for Academic Integrity uncovered the following statistics:

  • 64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test
  • 58 percent of students admitted to plagiarism
  • 95 percent of students admitted to cheating in some form

In a 2012 study on academic integrity from the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 23,000 high school students from all over the country participated in a survey on cheating and ethics. The results on academic misconduct are consistent with McCabe's research:

  • 52 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test
  • 32 percent of students admitted to copying information from the Internet for an assignment
  • 74 percent of students admitted to copying someone else's homework

Of those 23,000 students (half of which admitted to cheating on a test), 89 percent were planning to attend college after high school.

Do students at private high schools feel more pressure to cheat?

Does the prevalence of academic misconduct differ from public to private schools? One may assume private schools have stricter rules about academic misconduct or only enroll highly motivated students, so incidents of cheating would naturally be fewer. Furthermore, private schools don't have to follow government standards for test scores, so they can emphasize mastery of the knowledge instead. But all high schools will experience academic misconduct, whether they're public or private.

It's possible that cheating at private or high-achieving high schools is more common than at public schools. Students at these schools might feel pressure from their peers and their parents to get good grades and test scores so they can get into prestigious universities. Another temptation to cheat could come from devices like smartphones or tablets that students from wealthy families in affluent areas are more likely to have. Some private high school students even admit to cheating because they weren't fully aware of the consequences or what constitutes cheating.

The Disciplinary Process for Academic Misconduct

Schools vary when it comes to the disciplinary process for academic misconduct, both by location and school type. Typically, public schools have a code of conduct that includes the procedures for academic misconduct violations. These codes of conduct usually must adhere to guidelines or include language set forth by the state education department or the local school district. Individual schools may have some leeway in how they handle infractions, but generally, all the public high schools of one district will have the same disciplinary process for academic misconduct.

Private schools, on the other hand, are free to craft their own policies governing student conduct, including academic misconduct. These policies might not reflect local or federal regulations when it comes to educational settings, and they vary by school, as each institution is allowed to set its own policies. For this reason, discipline in private schools differs greatly from discipline in public schools.

Typical disciplinary process for academic misconduct at public high schools

  • The student receives notice of an academic misconduct violation (either a teacher or administrator can accuse students of academic misconduct).
  • The student's parent(s)/guardian(s) receive notice.
  • Depending on the seriousness of the allegation, the school conducts an investigation by reviewing evidence or questioning witnesses.
  • The student, parents/guardians, and school authorities discuss the violation.
  • The school makes a determination (decides if the student is guilty or innocent) and decides the penalties.
  • The student usually may appeal the decision before it's final

The above process reflects a public school's responsibility to follow due process rights. A private school is under no such obligation to notify the student they've violated the academic misconduct code, notify their parents, or conduct an investigation before making a determination.

For some infractions at public schools, a formal hearing is required. Private schools do not have to grant this hearing. As a result, the disciplinary process for academic misconduct at private high schools may be much shorter than at public schools. It may also deny a student the chance to defend themselves.

Potential Consequences of Academic Misconduct in High School

Although it seems like “everyone does it,” cheating and academic misconduct in high school are serious offenses. Many high schools, public and private, aim to prepare students for college, where there's usually a zero-tolerance policy for academic misconduct of any kind.

High schools want students to excel and believe they can't do so without completing tests, homework assignments, and projects as honestly as possible. Each school may take a different approach to imposing penalties for academic misconduct, but most tend to have similar punishments. Many high schools implement a severity scale for academic misconduct violations. A violation may be severe depending on the nature of the offense and if the student has a disciplinary history. Schools may then have corresponding penalties violations of different severity.

Typical consequences for high school academic misconduct

  • Failing grade: Depending on the assignment or the offense, a failing grade could lead to a student repeating a grade level.
  • Make-up assignment: If a student receives zero credit for an assignment they were accused of cheating on, their teacher may give them an opportunity to do the assignment again. The parameters of the make-up assignment are usually stricter than the original.
  • Ineligibility for extracurricular activities: Some schools prevent students who've violated the academic misconduct policy from playing sports, joining the chorus, participating in honor societies, or doing other school-affiliated activities.
  • Ineligibility for scholarships: High schools may communicate academic misconduct cases to colleges, which could prevent students from obtaining academic scholarships. It may also impact college admissions.
  • Suspension or expulsion: In the most serious cases, or after several repeat incidents, a high school may suspend or expel a student for academic misconduct.

Keep in mind that when a public school wants to bar you from attending school (which you have a constitutional right to do) for more than a short period of time, your school must grant you hearing or allow you to defend yourself before doing so. Private schools do not have to allow students to defend themselves if they are about to be suspended or expelled.

Due Process at Private Schools

Due process is an important issue when it comes to private and public schools because it concerns a student's rights. What is due process, and why does it matter for public and private high schools?

Due process is a series of requirements that authorities must go through before depriving someone of their rights and interests to life, liberty, or property. In a high school setting, due process means that the school authorities must inform the student of the wrongdoing they're accused of and must give the student a chance to defend themselves. The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process against actions by the federal government, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process against actions by state governments.

Public schools at all levels, from elementary schools to public universities, must guarantee due process to students in disciplinary matters. Students at public education institutions have a constitutional right to due process.

When a student or a student's parents choose a private school instead of a public one, they are giving up the student's traditional right to due process. Private schools can devise their own disciplinary measures; they can accuse a student of plagiarism without informing them and hand out punishment without notifying their parents. Private school disciplinary processes can move quickly as a result.

Contractual rights

Most private schools don't hand out punishments arbitrarily; they can't do whatever they want. Private schools usually have a code of conduct or student handbook, similar to public schools. Private institutions will ask students and parents to read the handbook and sign it. In doing so, the students and parents enter into a contract with their private high school, agreeing to abide by the rules set forth. Private schools don't have to guarantee due process to students who violate the code of conduct, but some do anyway. As there's no standard across private high schools, it's up to parents and students to check the school's handbook and learn what rights the student will have if they decide to attend that school.

What About Virtual and Home Schools?

With the increase in students learning from home, academic misconduct takes on a new nature. On the one hand, remote learning allows teachers to go fully digital, taking advantage of more immersive educational resources and online tools for classroom organization. On the other hand, catching students committing fraud or cheating has become more difficult.

Most high schools, public or private, didn't already have academic misconduct policies for remote learning. Many schools didn't imagine they'd have to set forth rules of conduct in a virtual setting, for academics or general misconduct.

Nevertheless, schools that have gone virtual aim to implement the same academic integrity policies they had for in-person classes. Copying someone else's work, paying for an assignment, attempting to screenshot a test for distribution to other students, logging into another student's account to take a test or complete an activity for them, and other similar behaviors are still banned.

Virtual schools and privacy concerns

Remote exam proctoring and sophisticated plagiarism software can alert teachers and administrators to possible incidents of academic misconduct. Some institutions have started using facial recognition technology as a way to secure exam-takers, but facial recognition AI can be problematic.

While maintaining academic integrity is important, cheating detection software can potentially violate a student's privacy. Public schools are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects students' right to privacy concerning their academic records. Schools also cannot disclose personally identifiable information in education records without the consent of a student or their parents. Institutions have a responsibility to find software and online applications that won't compromise a student's privacy.

Because private high schools generally don't receive federal funding, they do not have to comply with FERPA. As with due process rights, however, private schools may create their own policies regarding student privacy and disclosure of information. It's vital that students and parents understand their private high school's privacy policies, especially concerning online learning.

Although schools, private or public, may want to prevent cheating, it's important that they don't violate students' privacy in doing so. Students accused of academic misconduct related to online learning and privacy concerns should consult an attorney-advisor to understand their rights.

What About Charter Schools?

Charter schools are public education institutions that are independent of any school district. They have a separate contract with the state but still receive funding from state governments. Charter schools are open to every student and cannot charge tuition. As public institutions that receive state and federal funding, charter schools afford students the same due process and FERPA rights as public high schools.

As with all high schools, you should still read the student code of conduct for a charter school before attending.

An Attorney-Advisor for High School Academic Misconduct

If you or your child attends a private school, you should be fully aware of your rights when it comes to academic misconduct and disciplinary action. Not only can the school's punishment be severe, but an academic misconduct violation on your record can prevent you from getting into the college of your dreams or getting a scholarship.

Whether you attend public or private school, an experienced attorney-advisor can help you understand your rights when it comes to academic misconduct. A legal expert will be able to examine the school's policies and prepare a defense for you.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have helped thousands of high school and college students across the country defend themselves against their institutions, both public and private. If you want to protect your future, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 to set up a consultation.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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