It’s all about the gray areas

Within a school environment, students regularly face challenging ethical questions. Without much formal guidance on how to orient their moral compass in and out of academics, students hold different definitions of right and wrong.
Its all about the gray areas
Teens learn ethics from many places

This in-depth package was edited by Sahana Unni

Throughout the halls of Lab, students are surrounded by symbols of values — from the social justice posters created by students in seventh grade art throughout Gordon Parks Arts Hall, to affinity group and club advertisements, to the books displayed in the library, to even the messages in the daily bulletin. Though each student makes unique ethical decisions based on their life’s experiences, family or personal values, and social connections, Matthew Landa, a middle school counselor noted that Lab provides a space where proof of the community’s emphasis on these topics is everywhere.

Mr. Landa said, “Every discipline, division, and department both models its own values and engages with students to discover and develop their own. When we intentionally and explicitly use our values to guide our words and actions, we have the opportunity to honor the complexity and diversity of our community, which is pretty awesome.”

During the important transitionary time of adolescence, ethics play an important role in students’ interpersonal and intrapersonal development. Teens’ ethics are shaped by their experiences, both in and out of school, that contribute to their sense of right and wrong and connect to their core values, which grow over time.

Any time we find ourselves engaging in an activity where norms or guidelines are set, that’s a formative experience where we learn how do we not harm one another. How do we make sure the activity is done in a conducive setting for the benefit of all or as many people as possible?

— Aria Choi, U-High counselor

Even before they reach high school, students develop their ethics and learn how they influence decision-making. According to Mr. Landa, early adolescence is a very important time for growth and brain development, which deeply influence decision making. 

“High school and middle school especially is a time where we test boundaries, so if someone tells us ‘You have to do ABC,’ this is a time where we’re supposed to say, ‘Well, I want to do BCA, or I want to do XYZ,’” Mr. Landa said. “So I think all of us who work with adolescents and students in general have to understand and make space for that exploration and evolution of people’s values and ethical foundation.”

U-High counselor Aria Choi said she and the other high school counselors use the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning framework, known as CASEL, which helps students develop skills in five areas, which connect to ethics: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Ms. Choi said she has seen a variety of experiences influence students’ values and ethics — from examining community norms to being a member of an athletic team. 

“Any time we find ourselves engaging in an activity where norms or guidelines are set, that’s a formative experience where we learn how do we not harm one another,” Ms. Choi said. “How do we make sure the activity is done in a conducive setting for the benefit of all or as many people as possible?” 

Junior Lucie Bhatoey-Bertrand participates in Ethics Bowl, a club dedicated to debating real life ethical scenarios. She found that the club taught her the key reasoning behind why certain actions are deemed right and wrong, such as plagiarism or cheating, something she found was missing in her education at Lab. Lucie said challenging the ethics of those scenarios helped her develop a better understanding of the rules Lab has created and the rules people create for themselves.

“Ethics Bowl forces you to think about ethical dilemmas in real life and be able to work through why something is right or wrong, knowing that the answers often aren’t as clear as we think they are,” Lucie said. “Through my experience at Ethics Bowl, I am able to recognize these dilemmas in my day-to-day life.”

When dealing with situations about discipline, both Ms. Choi and Mr. Landa talked about the importance of emphasizing restorative justice in those educational experiences, as students learn about ethics.

 “Those conversations are framed as such where it’s never ‘You are not a bad person,’ it’s saying there was a decision that was made or a behavior that might have been inappropriate and addressing it in the context of how do we restore and how do we learn,” Ms. Choi said. “We talk about decision making, intent vs. impact, and those conversations are framed around what can we learn, how can we restore relationships, what could have been the more appropriate action.”

Survey results show wide ranging ethical standards

While nearly 9 in 10 students would not tell on a friend who was cheating, according to a recent U-High Midway poll, that number decreased to 8 in 10 if telling would get the student a good grade on their own test. This unscientific poll was conducted by the Midway on Jan. 11-18 with responses from 172 students from all grades, who expressed a number of wide ranging opinions, demonstrating how different the school’s core values can be for each student. 

In response to this question, many students expressed that maintaining loyalty with their friend would come above all else in this situation. 

“They have a trust in me and I respect that,” one ninth grader answered, “and also I wouldn’t want them to throw me under the bus for their own benefit.”

Students were especially split on the ethicality of pretending to be sick to miss a test. A little more than half of students, 54.1%, said they wouldn’t feign sickness in this situation.

“That would, at best, delay the test by something like one day,” a sophomore wrote in the poll response. “Not worth skipping school.”

However, 45.9% of students said they would use this technique to avoid tests. 

“There are sometimes life circumstances which cannot be accounted for — ones that might not be recognized by a teacher or you might be unable to convey,” one senior wrote. “Whatever the case may be, sometimes we truly need a break.”

When asked about using artificial intelligence, students’ opinions varied depending on the situation. While only 22.1% of students said they’d use ChatGPT to start a paper, 37.8% said they’d use artificial intelligence for research. 

“Sometimes I get stuck and need a little extra assistance to get it going,” one ninth grader wrote about using ChatGPT to start a paper. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a little boost.”

Despite student responses to this poll, the 2023-24 Student & Family Handbook suggests that students should not use generative artificial intelligence to replace fundamental skills including writing and independent research and that teachers can set guidelines for class.

Outside a purely academic setting, students also had differing opinions. Nearly two in three students, 65.7%, would report a friend for bullying a classmate, while 34.3% said they wouldn’t. However, many students wrote that their response would depend on the severity of the bullying.

“It honestly depends on the situation, but it’s often hard to recognize the consequences of an action until it’s too late, so either confronting the friend or letting someone know would work,” a sophomore wrote. “I’d like to think I’d at least do or say something.”

Ethics exchange: Students discuss core values

The Midway selected four students from each grade to take part in a roundtable discussion on ethics facilitated by Audrey Park, editor-in-chief. Participants were given hypothetical ethical situations, and they answered accordingly. It was conducted via Zoom on Jan. 16. The discussion has been lightly edited for length, clarity and style. 

Would you tell on a friend who was cheating?

Gio Nicolai: I think I would even if they were my friend because even if I have a personal relationship with them, it’s still not right to condone that, because if I condone that it shows that I condone that for everyone. If I condone it for one person, it creates an unfair double standard for others, so I wouldn’t not tell on anyone because they’re getting an unfair advantage.

Maggie Yagan: I completely disagree. I would not tell. It would have to depend on who the friend is and how egregious the aggression was, but if it were a close friend of mine, I would definitely not tell on them. I think it’s a breach of trust. If they get in trouble for it, they get in trouble for it, but I think your loyalty should be to your friend first and foremost. 

Amelia Tan: I think it depends on the circumstance and what they’re cheating on. If it was a small homework assignment, probably not. 

Rathin Shah: I stand between both of you. I think it depends how close I am to that person. Cheating is terrible, and it really frustrates me when I learn that someone is cheating because they have an unfair advantage, but friendship is a really important bond. I wouldn’t want to ruin a friendship over cheating. But I think I should; I just personally would not do it.

 Do you think it’s unethical for one person to carry a group project?

Gio: I do think it’s unfair for one person to not contribute, but I would ask the person why. I don’t think I would immediately think, “Why aren’t you pulling your weight?” Regardless, I would ask if there was a reason they couldn’t contribute as much. I feel like it’s more of a situational case, but if it’s simply that they’re not caring, I would ask them to put in more work.

Maggie: It is very important to pull your weight in a group project. Everyone has an equal responsibility to pitch in and do equal amounts of work. I think I would definitely talk to the person who I thought wasn’t pulling their weight. I’d first approach the other group members and ask if they felt the same way. If they did, then I would talk to the person with the others. 

Amelia: It’s called a group project for a reason, and everyone has a responsibility to contribute something. It is not really fair to everyone else in the group because they’re contributing something. If it’s a group project, and you don’t perform as well, it’s OK because you’re the only one who will face the consequences. But, when it is a group project, and you’re not contributing, everyone faces the consequences.

Rathin: As someone who has been both the person who has done all the work and the person who has done little of the work because of college applications and stuff, I have problems with group projects. I think Amelia is right, though. Group projects are groups for a reason, and it’s terrible being the person who has to do all the work, and you’re pulling the weight of a big assignment that is supposed to be distributed equally among multiple people. However, I think there are valid reasons that would explain someone having less involvement in a group project according to circumstances and ability. But communication is huge. The worst crime you cannot commit during a group project is not communicating. 

Is it ethical for two teachers of the same class to grade things very differently?

Gio: I’m a new student to Lab, so I wouldn’t say I have experienced this, but I can draw from my experience at my previous school. I think that there should be standardization for classes with mostly right and wrong answers, especially in determining partial credit, and that writing pieces should be more ability-based instead of standards-based. 

Maggie: It depends a lot on what kind of class it is. For humanities classes, I think there is more room for teacher discretion than, for example, math or science. For the latter two, there is a right and a wrong answer, so in that case, grading should be incredibly standardized. I think in history or English classes because it is a lot easier for discrepancies to appear because it is writing-based, I think teachers should do their best to standardize it, but it is slightly understandable if there are inconsistencies. 

Amelia: I think that because it is the same course, the teacher should definitely communicate with the class on how they’re grading. If they’re different assignments, then it’s OK. But if it’s the same assignment or test, I think they have to be on the same grading scale. I know for math, a lot of the time, they’re pretty consistent with how many points they take away for certain types of errors. We all have friends in different classes, so we do talk, so if it’s the same assignment and different teacher, they should definitely be graded similarly. 

Rathin: I took a class and got an A for doing very little. The system in which some teachers are harder and others are stricter kind of sucks for students because then it’s a lottery for students. It’s either you’re in a really challenging class or in a really easy class, but it’s the same class. That system sucks. However, this system is never going to be objective. Even in math where there is a “right or wrong” answer, teachers have different perspectives, like if you have the right answer and all the wrong steps or vice versa, teachers may interpret how to grade that differently. Within departments, there should be some standardization because it’s not fair, but it’s also like, life isn’t fair. It also prepares you for life and college because professors aren’t always going to be fair. Professors are people. Teachers are people. You could build a strong rapport with a teacher and probably get a better grade. In that way, it does prepare you for the real world. I do think, though, there should be guidelines for each department to maximize fairness. 

Is indicating the difficulty of a test to someone who hasn’t taken the test but will, immoral?

Gio: I do feel like it depends on how much you’re giving away. I think it’s OK to give away an overall statistic, like, “Oh, I didn’t find it awful.” I don’t necessarily think that’s immoral. But, if you say, “Oh, question 7 was hard or easy.” I think pointing out specific times like this or parts that make a test a certain way is immoral. But I think making a general statement is not immoral. I don’t think sharing anything about the test in general is good, but it’s not necessarily immoral. 

Maggie: I agree. I think there is no problem with giving the difficulty of the test. Or even, “Question 7 was hard.” I think the issue starts to arise when you tell them what exactly the questions were or even worse, what the answers were. 

Amelia: I agree. I think it’s fine if you say it was hard. As long as you’re not giving away what exactly the test was about. I think the level of difficulty is OK, though. 

Rathin: There are two parts. There is a pretty large difference between saying “it wasn’t that hard” and “be prepared for the test.” Generalizations about tests are fine, but if you start to say, “the end of the test was hard” or “this question was hard,” that’s considered cheating because it will influence the test taker’s performance on the test. This information will affect your time management for the test, and you get a leg up. If I know the last page is the most difficult part of the test, I’d be sure to breeze through the first page and put more time in the last page. 

Is it immoral to pretend to be sick or take a mental health day to catch up on work or study for a test the next day?

Gio: Mental health days should not be used purposefully to avoid an exam. If one is genuinely feeling badly and needs to take a break, and this coincides with the exam, I don’t think that’s an issue. But, if that person is continuously taking mental health days on the same days tests are administered or faking sick, it’s like what Rathin said about the previous question: it gives them a leg up, so it’s unfair in that way. 

Maggie: Faking a sick day to avoid taking a test is absolutely inexcusable because, first of all, that’s a breach of integrity. And secondly, this gives you an incredibly unfair advantage relative to your peers. You can hear about the test. You could spend that day studying. It’s more of a gray area with mental health days. If there are cases when you have non-related test anxiety about something happening, I think, in certain cases, that’s excusable.  

Amelia: I think there is a lot of confusion surrounding mental health days in that I don’t understand why they have a special name if they go into your total absent count. I don’t get why they have their own name. But regardless, I would think of a class test as a group project. So if you’re not taking a test when you could be, it’s not fair to everyone else because you’re getting a leg up in that you get to study. It makes it easier for you, but it makes it almost harder for everyone else because a grade might be curved. If half the class had extra time to study, the other half would probably do worse. When you take extra time when you should be taking it at the same time as everyone else, it’s not fair.   

Rathin: I think the nature of mental health days is interesting as it is different from a sick day because virtually they do the same thing. Getting your mom or dad or nonbinary parent to sign off on something and call in sick does the same thing as a mental health day. The existence of a mental health day is to circumvent that sort of thing where students may take a day off and pretend they’re sick. In general, I think Lab has a lenient policy on absences. I definitely benefit from them. And to be honest. I have missed days to study for tests. And I do think that is a bad thing. I would not prescribe that as something that should be allowed. Mental health days are so you can miss a day of class without there being major repercussions. But from personal experience and observations, mental health days only contribute to anxiety because you have so much work to catch up on.  

Amelia: I think it’s totally acceptable for people to take mental health days; I just don’t think it needs another label. 

Rathin: For me, I think there is a different label because it’s an easier way for students to have an excuse. I think a lot of parents are like, “You have to be physically sick to miss school.” But sometimes, you might not be mentally in check and are going insane. Having the mental health day is so that it’s easier for students to take that option. 

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About the Contributors
Mia Lipson
Mia Lipson, News Editor
Mia Lipson is a member of the Class of 2025 and serves as news editor. She began journalism in the 2021-22 school year as a ninth grader and previously served as an assistant editor. Her favorite story she has written is a profile on retiring P.E. teacher Terri Greene. Outside of journalism, she enjoys running, writing and reading any history book she can find. Awards: 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, staff editorial: superior 2023 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, San Francisco convention: Superior, editorial writing
Audrey Park
Audrey Park, Editor-in-Chief
Audrey Park is a member of the Class of 2024 and serves as an editor-in-chief. She began writing for the Midway in the 2020-21 school year when she was in ninth grade. Her favorite story she has written is about University of Chicago nurses seeking solutions for the uninsured. She loves journalism because of its ability to represent and reflect multiple perspectives. Audrey also enjoys reading, traveling and playing card games. Awards: 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, special coverage: (with Clare McRoberts and Sahana Unni) superior 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, general feature Story: excellent 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: First place, sidebar writing, “Affirmative Apprehension — Expert input: Law professor explains case” 2023 Illinois All-State Journalism Team 2023 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, San Francisco convention: Honorable mention, online package 2023 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, news story: excellent 2022 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, St. Louis convention: Honorable mention, editorial writing 2022 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: First place, sidebar writing, “Misinformation solutions rely on regulation, media literacy”
Sahana Unni
Sahana Unni, Editor-in-Chief
Sahana Unni is a member of the Class of 2024 and serves as an editor-in-chief. She began journalism as a ninth grader in the 2020-21 school year and has since appreciated the exposure to different ideas and perspectives. Her favorite story she has written is about the Jane Collective, a group of women who provided safe abortions before the procedure was legalized in the early 1970s. Outside of journalism, Sahana enjoys creative writing and reading, while also serving as an editor-in-chief of the Renaissance literary magazine and a captain of the Mock Trial team.
Awards: 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, special coverage: (with Audrey Park and Clare McRoberts) superior 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: First place, personal opinion: on-campus issues, "New auditorium name at odds with values" 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: Second place (with Zara Siddique), photo layout: full page (Page 3) 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: Certificate of merit, news feature, “Dazzling drag city” 2023 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, San Francisco convention: Honorable mention, online package 2022 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: Cultural feature, certificate of merit, "‘Bridgerton’ effectively represents Indian culture" 2022 Journalism Education Association National Student Media Contests, St. Louis convention: Honorable mention, feature writing 2020 National Scholastic Press Association Fall Best of Show: Sixth Place, Election Reporting (contributor), “As trailblazer for multiple identities, Harris inspires students”
Eliza Dearing
Eliza Dearing, Artist
Eliza Dearing is a member of the Class of 2024 and is an artist for the U-High Midway. Awards: 2024 Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, original editorial cartoon, drawing or comic: superior 2024 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle Award: Second place, art/illustration: hand-drawn, “Affirmative Apprehension”

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