Can a student sue their school over rampant, unchecked cheating?

It’s that time of year again–everyone’s planning their first round of exams.

In a pow-wow over how to conduct our Physics 101 prelim, one of the professors suggested several methods that, while they were unlikely to stop the determined cheater, were highly visible anti-cheating measures that would reassure non-cheaters who were nervous about the honesty of their fellow students, to, as he put it, prevent them from slapping us with a lawsuit.

Now, for many years as a TA, I have watched in dismay as cheaters were given slaps on the wrist, and now that I’m a professor in my own right–okay, okay, lecturer, but I’m running my own class, is the point–I try to take reasonable measures to prevent the most common methods of cheating, and have resolved not to tolerate it if it is discovered. It was with great glee that last semester the Physics 101 team awarded a student who cheated heinously on the final with a big fat F for the semester. But my reasons for hating cheating so much stem mostly from the disrespect it shows to the cheater’s classmates, not a fear of being sued!

I have never heard of a lawsuit against a school that was too lax in the academic integrity department, nor have Higher Powers ever attempted to impress upon me that this was a real possiblity I should be worried about. Sexual harassment suits? Yes. Suits over discrimination by race, creed, or physical or mental disability? Ooooh, yes. But getting sued for not stopping cheaters? Never heard of it!

Anyone else?

I just want to say that I think this is a great question and I look forward to hearing the answer.

I think it would be a concern, especially in highly competitive classes that are marked on a curve. If so many people are cheating that honest students have their marks significantly lowered, then I could imagine that a student might be able to sue the school for failing to stop the cheating.

IANAL etc. The answer is, sure, someone can file suit over it. We can file suit over pretty much anything in the US, litigous nation that we are. The question then becomes, what damages can the plaintiff claim? That they got lower grades based on the cheating? What’s the remedy? That they were financially harmed on the basis of getting a lower grade? How would that be quantified? That their 4.0 average is seen as less than stellar either because the school has a reputation as a haven for cheaters or because their personal reputation may eb besmirched as a possible cheater? Actually that last one might be sustainable as a defamation issue depending on the facts, but overall I wouold say that the chances that a non-cheating student could recover financially in such a suit would be pretty low. I suppose an honest student could seek some sort of injunctive relief but I haven’t a clue how such relief could be crafted. Requiring the school to hire cheating detectors? Giving papers to a third party for plaigerism checking? Hmm…

I am neither a professor nor a lawyer, but I know a lot of both. In my experience, the threat of lawsuits is generally made by cheaters trying to get reinstated. I have seen people who received failing grades in a class due to cheating resort to both political pressure and threats of lawsuits. In the cases of political pressure, the students’ parents were able to influence either the University president or a member of the Board of Regents to intercede with the professor. In the cases of lawsuits, the charges were vague and obviously frivolous but they might have tried something like defamation in addition to “pain and suffering”. None of these efforts were successful in changing the students’ grades.

I guess you could take the view that a professor should make cheating difficult so that it is not an “attractive nuisance”. This would prevent some students from cheating and thereby decrease the likelihood of being sued by those cheaters when they’re forced to suffer the consequences of their actions.

I have also seen some cases where alumni exerted pressure on a university because of something they thought would decrease the value of their degree. For example, if a university lowers admission standards or takes other action which generally lowers the quality of the institution, people who already have degrees might feel they would suffer by association. None of the cases I know of have resulted in lawsuits, but I suppose that’s only a matter of time. I can see how both alumni and active students might push some sort of breach-of-contract suit if they felt grading standards were slipping and their own reputations might suffer. I think it’s silly, but if my opinion counted, most lawsuits wouldn’t get filed.

I’ve been Associate Professor of Psychology of 6 years at my institution, one of those years as depertment head. I instruct at a small liberal arts college in New England, however my graduate work was done at ASU.

Can a Student file suit against an institution for Rampant Cheating, and an institutions inability to stop cheaters? Yes.

Does it happen very often, and does the outsome tend to favor the student? No.

At my school we have an honor code, being a private college it works out very well. And I would say it would be very difficult for anyone to bring suit against us because our classes are so small and most profs have an easy time keeping tabs on their students.
Cheating of any form usually lands on your personal record, and can be quite tarnishing later in life. I have dealt with a few cases here and usually when I wave the possibility of expulsion in front of their face, they usally straighten out. We had a student s few years ago try and sue us for getting himself expelled. When charges of possible sexual assault were mentioned to him, he quickly dropped his suit.
As for cheating at larger institutions this is an issue that needs to be looked into with more clarity. At ASU we had a problem with it in some of the lower level classes, to the point of people handing in the same report for the same class. Obviously someone was stealing someone elses paper and just handing it into a different class number i.e psych 101, with 1000 students in one class was broken up to different times of the day, we would occasionally get two people handing in the same papers.
My T.A’s here are great as well, we have a shared drive set up at work where papers can be cross referenced with past papers going back ten years. Unfortunately we do have a lot of savvy kids here who find other ways to cheat.

But in answer to the OP, yes a student can sue an institution for rampant unchecked cheating, especially if they are missing out on some fundamental aspect of the school, as a direct result of the cheating. The exact charges or basis of the suit I am unsure of, it would vary tremendously I am sure.

I imagine that a student who felt that cheating unfairly impacted upon his/her grade on examinations or in a class overall could sue to require the school to come up with anti-cheating measures – proctored exams, given in study carrolls where students were required to show that they had nothing in their pockets or up their sleeves, perhaps? – and to allow them to drop the first grade without penalty and retake the class without charge so that they could have an “honest” chance and honest assessment of their abilities.

I’d hate to see it come to that, but in a large school where people had the ability to get away with things because of the physical size of their classes or the lax proctoring of exams by harried TAs who used exam periods as opportunities to study for themselves instead of actively watching for cheating (I’m not impuning all TAs, but that scenario has happened) it could be the only remedy that someone might have.

After two acquittals in blatant cheating cases I gave up trying to control it. In the first one, four students who had been sitting near each other had turned in the same impossible answer. Not only wrong, but improbably wrong. The case hinged on the improbability and the dean of science saw the point immediately but one of the students was in arts and that dean couldn’t understand the issue well enough to see how unlikely it was and they all got off.

In the other case, a student had somehow acquired a master key and gone into the dept office after the exam and simply changed his answers and then came around afterwards and asked me to look again. I was not initially suspicioous until his girl friend did the same thing. It turned out that he had done the same thing the previous term. He was known to have a master key since guards had found him in unauthorized rooms previously. He denied it all and since no one had actually seen him in the dept office, he was acquitted. His girl friend too. (They denied being friends, but it turned out they lived in the same apartment.)

Just out of interest Podkayne (and hopefully not too much of a hijack), how do these people get away with cheating in an exam? Do they bring cellphones or PDAs into the exam, or do they use the old-fashioned “writing on your arm” or “copying from your neighbour” trick? Don’t you have exam proctors that keep an eye out for this stuff?

I’m a grad student and TA in a history department, and it’s almost impossible for the students to cheat in exams, because exam questions tend to involve essay-length answers that can’t be easily copied from someone else, and that require a long and involved repsonse.

In the humanities, cheating nowdays seems most frequently to involve the internet and research papers. Last year i caught a student whose whole ten-page paper consisted of paragraphs cut-and-pasted directly from three different websites. Needless to say, he failed the course and got a black mark on his academic record. Because he was a senior, it also meant that he had to take an extra class in his final semester in order to graduate on time. Still, i think anyone caught taking work straight off the internet should be expelled from the school–no warnings.

My professor and i also had a student who copied sentences from a book into her paper without quotation marks or appropriate attribution. We discussed whether it was cheating, but decided that because it only involved a few sentences, and because she had properly quoted the same book in other parts of the paper, it was most likely sloppy note-taking rather than cheating, so we just got her to write another paper.

By far the most common method is copying from a neighbor–either a willing accomplice, or an innocent person who just happens to have a paper in view of the cheater.

Other methods I have personally witnessed have been: notes written on the visor of a baseball cap, notes written on an arm, leaving papers on the floor, and bringing in a ringer to take the exam. I’d always thought that checking IDs at exams was a little over-the-top paranoid until a student actually DID have someone else take an exam I proctored–it was Mister “F” from the OP. Now I plan to check IDs on all exams, as well.

Yeah, we watch out for the more common forms of cheating. But typically you have maybe 4 TAs proctoring an exam for 200 students in a lecture hall that, while large enough to cover a lot of real estate (which the TAs must patrol for cheaters while simultaneously watching for students with questions), doesn’t have enough room to seat the students any farther apart than every other seat. The most problematic exams consist of short math problems, short-answer, fill in the blank, matching, and the like. You can’t make sure that every student is watched all the time, and it only takes a second for the student to glance over and read off an answer. The study-carol scenario suggested by TeaElle would be ideal, but as a practical matter, you just can’t get that kind of space.

As a result, we really only catch the dumb cheaters. With the resources we have, any student who displays a modicum of cunning can easily get away with it.

So we do the best job watching them we can, but the problem is, when (not if, when) you catch a person cheating, what do you do? As TAs, the only thing we had the power to do was to refer the matter to the professor. When we noticed the copy-of-the-neighbor thing happening, we’d keep the exam of copier (the “cheater”) together with the exam of the person being copied from (the “cheatee”). We also keep an eye out for “eerily similar” mistakes, as in Hari’s first example. Usually the comparison of the cheater’s and the cheatee’s papers was enough to convince the prof that something was going on, but the confrontation of the students always happened behind closed doors and profs were loathe to share the details.

I mean, I can tell you the details without even being there: the student is called on the carpet, denies all wrong-doing, the prof gives a Stern Lecture, and then the cheater is set free.

Without a really egregious slam-dunk case, most professors simply won’t pursue the matter to the level of a disciplinary committee, or even do more than give the student an F on that one exam, because it means that you have to do paperwork and rigorously document the offense. For cases where there is even a some chance that cheating did not actually occur, or when the cheating occurred on a preliminary exam, say, instead of a final, for most professors, it’s not worth the hassle to pursue the case beyond an informal dressing-down.

After you’ve dropped the dime on four or five obvious cheaters and watched them go on to pass the course with a decent grade, you stop wondering whether you should even bother anymore. There was one person, in particular, who cheated in so obvious and overt a manner on the final, and displayed a complete inability to answer simple questions similar those he supposedly aced on his exam, whose ass so should have been grass. The professor gave him an INC and allowed him to take the exam again after winter break supposedly on his own merits that time. The fucker–Fuck this being GQ not the pit–the fucker got a C on it and passed the course without any derogatory mark, other than the incomplete, on his transcript.

A student who is caught and suffers no real penalty is much more likely to decide that the risk is worth it and cheat again, IMHO. If nothing is ever pursued to a higher level, a student can actually even get caught cheating on an astronomy exam, a history exam, an economics exam, etc., and without any documentation going into their file, each subsequent professor treats it as an isolated case.

It’s difficult for the professor to pursue the accusation. There will no doubt be a ton of red tape, parents screaming their heads off, and even, depending on the administration, pressure from above to let it slide. It makes me mad when I think of the other students (90% of them? 80%? I’m so cynical, I don’t even know any more) who bust their butts and study hard instead of cheating.

I almost wish a few students would file suit, so that we instructors can get the resources to prevent cheaters and detect cheating, and backing of the administration to really come down like a load of bricks.

Personally, I’m in favor of a few hours in stocks on the Quad, but my more radical colleagues feel that a “C” branded on the forehead would drive the point home nicely. :wink:

I hate cheating. I hate it. I study my butt off for my grades, and seeing some slacker pull off a great mark by leaning over and reading someone else’s answers REALLY frustrates me.

In exams, I twist myself around and hunch over my papers so nobody can see what I’m doing. I’ve also become a tattler. When I see people cheating, I make sure to tell the prof later, so (s)he can follow up on it.

I have to say, though, that from my personal experience, it seems that the number of people cheating is much higher in first-year courses (University). As you go through the years, classes get smaller, and it’s almost as though the cheaters get weeded out. Maybe the smaller class sizes make cheating riskier, and they stop trying it… but I doubt that, because then there would be a lot of people failing their upper-level courses since they can’t cheat. They probably all just drop out and turn to a life of crime… or law school.


I’m a lawyer, and I have worked as an adjunct professor.

If people have pressed such suits, I am not aware of it. This in itself does not prove a lot.

My best guess is that one could plausibly argue that failure to make a good faith effort to combat cheating amounts to a tort of negligence. Generally speaking, there can be no negligent tort without a pre-existing duty, and no compensdable tort without an injury to the plaintiff. It seems reasonable that a court could find that the school has a duty to combat cheating, and that honest students who find that their class rankings suffer because of successful cheaters have sustained an injury which merits compensation.

That said, it strikes me as a hard case to make in practice. Just how much cheating much occur for it to be considered so “widespread” that failure to combat it rises to the level of an actionable tort? And how does one demonstrate that but for the cheating one’s class standing would not have been seriously affected? There could, of course, be considerable wrangling over what is or is not reasonably expected of an institution in trying to prevent or punish cheating.

Pretty much all of tort law is an emerging, evolving field, and this is particularly true with respect to the relationship between students and schools. For instance, so far as I know, the case law for students who have sued over being graded wrongly or unfairly is still pretty much in its infancy.

There is no exact, pre-existing set of torts over which people can sue. If there was, then people would be without the possibility of a remedy when someone finds a new way to screw with them.

The first man to sue over medical malpractice did so without such a concept as medical malpractice already existing in the law. By the way, he had a heck of a case: he broke his leg and the doctor who had reset it decided he could do better. So, without consulting with the patient, he had an assistant throw himself on the man, and then he grabbed his leg and snapped it in two over his knee. It is said that the patient had the presence of mind to say “you have severed what nature formed”. In any case, the leg never healed right after that.

Similarly, society’s ideas of what constitutes an injury for which compensation should be granted evolve over time. Today one can sue for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional harm. For instance, a parent who sees their child dragged to death under the car of a drunk driver can get compensation for, among other things, the psychiatric counseling they will likely require on account of the trauma of witnessing this. While this may seem natural to many people, the idea of compensation for such emotional injury is a development of recent decades.

I so cheated when I was in school. I took notes during class, from the professor! He told us what was going to be on the test! Then, the professor would hand out study guides, man I so ate those up! I would answer them blind, look in the book to find the right answer and then memorize the right answer! I so cheated! When test day came I would march in there, sit down, fill out all the answers, cause I had them all from before the test was even given.

And then I got a good grade.

And then I forgot all about the stuff I memorized.

And after four years I got a degree that got me a job where I just play on a computer all day writing code. Man I’m so cheating.

Of course I have bad dreams. I dread the day some guy in a black suit wearing a dark tie comes up to my desk, points his finger at me and says, “CHEATER!” Then he does this Invasion-Of-The-Body-Snatchers yell and everyone dog piles on me and beats the crap out of me!

I thought I would get caught after leaving school, but it turns out that you can keep on cheating all through life and never get caught. Unless you’re the guy that has to write the unit conversion code for the Mars Lander, or you wrote the interface to the radiation therapy machine that allowed a technician to enter in a too big number and kill someone. Man you’re so busted!

Sandwriter, I’m not sure what your point is. Taking notes and using the study guides the prof hands out obviously aren’t cheating. If the class rules allow you to use those guides, then how is that a problem?

Oh, and congratulations, Podkayne!

Chronos – I think Sandwriter is saying that one can get high grades by “legitimate” means and still cheat oneself out of an education. At least, that’s how I read it…

And of course he’s quite right, but fortunately that is the student’s problem and not anyone else’s.

Chronos - I have many points

  1. Nose

  2. Head

  3. Hi Opal Cat.

  4. Cheating is a state of mind. I felt I was cheating even though I wasn’t.

  5. As mentioned above, stupid cheaters may make it through large population introductory classes, but they won’t make it through upper classes.

  6. If smart cheaters did make it through upper classes, then in the real world they will get caught.

  7. If genius cheaters make it through school, and the real world, and never get caught, were they really cheating?

  8. If genius cheaters make it through everything without being caught are they really cheating?

  9. If you get upset, are you merely jealous that you didn’t get away with it?

I think that’s what I was trying to say. Plus I wanted to share my ‘discovery’ nightmare with everyone.

p.s. and what Fretful Porpentine said.

Ooops, cross out number 4 and change 5 to 4 and 6 to 5.

Cheating is not a state of mind, any more than breaking the law is.

slipster, thank you very much for the informative response!

I took Sandwriter’s meaning to be that the professors want you to succeed, so they are giving you the answers, and just studying and memorizing them is as easy as cheating, sometimes.

Kinda like that episode of . . . gawd, I forget now, Blossom, maybe? . . . where the dumb kid (Joey, perhaps) is planning to cheat on his exam by writing all the answers on his arm. But he runs out of room, so he washes his arm and rewrites everything smaller, but he runs out of room and starts over again, etc. Then he sits down to take the test and miraculously discovers that he knows all the answers and he doesn’t have to look at his arm.

Or, maybe I don’t know what Sandwriter was getting at. Anyway, regarding Sandwriter’s last point, “If you get upset, are you merely jealous that you didn’t get away with it?”

No. When I was a student, I didn’t give a damn about cheaters. I only ever got A’s and B’s, anyway, and I had the luxury of not having to maintain a certain GPA. If other people cheated, I figured, like Sandwriter, they were just cheating themselves out of an education, and karma would bite them in the ass eventually.

However, if I was the sort of student who worked really hard, but who was still only barely scraping by, and asshole cheaters were blowing the curve and making the difference between me passing or failing, or even between my keeping my scholarship or not, I would certainly have felt differently.

And now that I’m an instructor, it is my job to stop cheaters, a job which I pursue with vigor for the sake of the students mentioned above. And I hate those sneaky bastard cheaters, every last one of them. Unlike Sandwriter, I have a very strict definition of cheater: it’s someone whose doesn’t follow the rules that are established to ensure that everyone’s grade represents their own individual effort.

Not everyone has the luxury of time to study in the way that Sandwriter describes. Some of them have crazy heavy course loads, some of them work part time, and so on. I realize that that’s their choice, and if they don’t perform academically as well as they could because of it, that’s their problem, they made the choice to take on those committments–but they do not deserve to have cheaters lower their grades. Also, some students–and I say this with all the love in the world–just ain’t very bright. It is not fair to make a struggling student who is putting forth tremendous personal effort have to compete with people who are artificially inflating their grades by cheating.

At McGill, many of our exams were multiple choice tests with 16 answers per question. Seat positions were recorded and answers compared electronically with those in your proximity. Cheaters were often routinely given Fs or even expelled. I am shocked to learn this is not more commonly the case.

It strikes me that this is a pretty draconian system. I mean, in a multiple choice test with only 16 questions, and depending on the size of the class and the ease of the test, there could be quite a high probability that two students have many, or even all, answers the same.

And how do you determine who was doing the cheating? Were both students cooperating, or was one looking on without the knowledge of the other? What if two smart students who get all the answers right (quite likely in the giggle-and-guess format) happen to be sitting adjacent to one another?