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ANDREA, SEABROOK, host:

Now to a small town in New Hampshire that is being ripped apart by a cheating scandal at its public high school. Nine students at Hanover High allegedly broke into school and stole advanced copies of exams.

They're now facing criminal chances. The incident has prompted deep soul-searching about how hard to come down on kids. And why some kids might think cheating is okay.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: It's easy to see why Hanover has been called one of the best places to live in America. It's an affluent, charming New England town centered around the prestigious Dartmouth College. And it's long cherished its golden reputation. That may explain why so many people here are so upset about this cheating scandal that's now attracting national reporters.

Unidentified Man: Whoa. So (unintelligible).

SMITH: In front of the high school where the so-called Notorious Nine, allegedly saw their final exams, some students tried to foil a reporter's interview by shrieking and throwing bottles.

(Soundbite of electric guitar)

SMITH: Other kids with an electric guitar and portable amp tried to thwart interviews by trailing a reporter like a heavy metal mariachi band.

(Soundbite of electric guitar)

SMITH: While most kids here wish they could make their story go away, they are divided about how to punish the nine students who allegedly used a stolen key to break into school and steal last year's finals.

Many like junior Mike Rotch says the kids do deserve to be punished by their principals, but not by a prosecutor.

Mr. MIKE ROTCH (Student, Hanover High School, New Hampshire): Yeah, I think they're really coming down pretty hard. I mean, cheating is bad, but it's not like this is unheard of, like, anywhere in America.

SMITH: As prosecutors see it, they went easy on the kids by charging them only with misdemeanor trespassing instead of burglary, which is a felony. The misdemeanor carries only fines, not prisons.

But because New Hampshire treats 17-year-olds as adults, the students could end up with criminal records, a prospect freshman Ethan Forhour thinks is unfair.

Mr. ETHAN FORHOUR (Student, Hanover High School, New Hampshire) I mean, seriously, like, they are good kids and they made a mistake. And I think they know that they did make a mistake.

SMITH: But other students are less sympathetic.

Unidentified Woman #1: They are criminals.

Unidentified Man: #1: Just becauseā€¦

Unidentified Man #2: It's the same as if I walked into a convenience store and shoplifted, that's still the same thing. They stole.

SMITH: What's your name?

Unidentified Woman #2: We prefer to stay anonymous. We'd probably, kick the crap out of them.

SMITH: Other students, who didn't want their names used either, admitted they themselves would cheat because of all the pressure.

Jim Kenyon is a local newspaper columnist and the father of one of the nine students who've been charged. He says Hanover is a place where the college you go to is more of a status symbol than the car you drive, and parents put big-time pressure on kids.

Mr. JIM KENYON (Columnist, The Valley News): We've created a monster, and I'm as guilty as anyone, as a parent, because we want the best for our children. So we shouldn't be surprised when we have these kind of things happen.

SMITH: But Kenyon says treating kids like criminals does nothing to address the broader problem of cheating that he says is rampant.

Besides the nine accused of stealing the exams, he says, there are dozens of other kids who asked for copies and used them to cheat.

Mr. KENYON: It was working like a New York deli. I mean, kids were just calling up and putting in an order and that to me speaks of the culture of the school that needs to be addressed.

SMITH: As a parent, Kenyon says, he never really lectured his kids about academic integrity. He just never saw it as one of the biggies, like drugs and drunk driving.

Teachers also may be sending the kids the wrong message about cheating. Juniors Cory Burns and Dillon Gregory say kids know they won't get in trouble for things like sharing homework or finding out what's on a test from kids who've already taken it.

Ms. CORY BURNS (Student, Hanover High School, New Hampshire): Some teachers don't classify that as cheating, and some teachersā€¦

Mr. DILLON GREGORY (Student, Hanover High School, New Hampshire): There are some who don't see it as such a serious issue.

SMITH: It may be part of the reason why cheating is on the rise in schools. Research suggests up to 75 percent of kids today cheat.

Ms. AINE DONOVAN (Executive Director, Ethics Institute, Dartmouth College): The millennial generation, kids born roughly after the year 1983, seem to have a different notion about honesty than previous generations did.

SMITH: Aine Donovan, head of Dartmouth's Ethics Institute, says kids today are more apt to rationalize their behavior as a means to an end, and they seemed to have invented their own particular code of right and wrong.

Ms. DONOVAN: When I ask my students, is there anything unethical about downloading music - absolutely not. They don't have a problem with it. And yet those same kids would never in a million years walk into a K-Mart and steal a CD. It's a different kind of orientation about morality.

SMITH: It's like the Hanover High sophomore who says kids couldn't really had stolen a teacher's keys if they just took the keys off the teacher's table right out in the open.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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