Cheating Scandals Rock Three Top-Tier High Schools

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Sam is a top student in a high-pressure high school just outside New York City who openly admits he "cheats along the way" to academic success.

The 16-year-old sees nothing wrong with looking at another student's paper during a quiz or borrowing a classmate's ideas.

He insists "90 percent or higher" of the students at his school engage in cheating — from tucking vocabulary crib sheets under their hats to stealing math exams.

But Sam insists he has a moral conscience — he won't use his last name for this article — and he swears he will never cheat in college. But he justifies his cheating.

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"My parents would consider this cheating, but I don't have any major problems with it," Sam told ABCNEWS.com. "It's school, and you're cheating your way through the system."

Sam is typical of most American students. An estimated two-thirds of all high school students admit to "serious" academic cheating, according to a national survey by Rutgers' Management Education Center in New Jersey.

A startling 90 percent say they cheat on homework.

Cheating is epidemic, say experts, and recent scandals have rocked — and in some cases divided — both public and private high schools from New Hampshire to California. Some are the highest-performing schools in the nation, where the pressure to get into an Ivy League college is intense and parents buy into the academic game.

Ruthlessly Competitive

This month at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina — described as ruthlessly competitive with faculty children from nearby Duke University and the University of North Carolina — four students were suspended in two cheating incidents.

In one, students used a master key to enter a teacher's office at night to steal an AP history exam. In the second, students copied an exam with a camera phone. They told school officials the cheating had gone on for years, as graduating seniors passed the key on down.

In a similar case in Hanover, N.H. - home of Dartmouth College where faculty children attend the local high school - criminal trials have been going on since November in connection with a 2007 cheating incident. Students broke into a teacher's filing cabinet, stealing math exams.

Now, the incident has split the community, as 10 students face criminal charges, even though 50 were implicated in a police investigation.

And at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, a top-tier private school with a national reputation for academics, six sophomores were expelled and more than a dozen other students faced suspensions this week for distracting teachers and stealing Spanish and history tests.

Harvard-Westlake president Thomas Hudnut said in a prepared statement that the incident was "an unprecedented breach of trust and a true aberration."

"Our school is nationally known for its excellence," he said. "But … we don't want exceptional to include academic achievement only. We want and expect our students to be exceptionally honest and good people."

Students like Sam argue there are different levels of cheating, and in some cases the end justifies the means. But teachers say that adolescence is when moral values are hard-wired and that forgiving cheating then spells trouble later.

"Academic misconduct is small potatoes in the moral domain, compared to murder, rape and drug abuse," said Jason Stephens, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

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