CENTERBURG — Because some seniors cheated on tests while taking a world social studies class required for graduation, the Centerburg Board of Education canceled commencement exercises, and the mood at the high school on Friday was somber rather than celebratory.
“It’s a whole different setting here today,” high school principal John Morgan said. “My heart breaks for all the kids. Even the ones who made the bad choice — they’re kids. Then there are the seniors who were at the career center, my post-secondary kids or CBI kids. There are so many kids who are just getting caught up in this storm.”
Many seniors and their parents are angry that they learned of the board’s action just one day before the scheduled graduation ceremonies.
Morgan said the cheating situation, which may have involved as many as five to seven tests given by teacher Mike Vargo, had been suspected by school staff for some time. However, he said, when he talked with students about the matter, no one would “look me in the eye and say, ‘so-and-so was doing something.’”
“That would have given me just cause to start digging deeper,” he said. “I can’t proceed on mere hearsay and unsubstantiated rumor. I have to have something to go on. It doesn’t have to be beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I ought to be at least 51 percent sure. We didn’t have that until Tuesday.”
After the suspicion was confirmed Tuesday, Morgan talked with some seniors during Wednesday’s graduation practice, trying to gather more information.
“After talking with the initial ‘suspect,’” he said, “other names were produced and this just completely mushroomed. In talking with the kids, I asked them how widespread it was. They indicated that 60 to 75 percent [of the students in Mr. Vargo’s world social studies class] were participants.”
According to a law enforcement officer, several students interviewed said, “We didn’t think cheating was such a big deal.”
Morgan said the board met Thursday evening to ponder options available to them.
“No one in that room that night took the decision lightly,” he said. “It’s weighing heavily on their hearts.”
Concerning the cancellation of commencement exercises, Morgan said there was a plan in place to notify the seniors of the board’s decision.
“We were going to start making phone calls Friday morning,” he said, “because we didn’t get out of the board meeting until after 9 p.m. Thursday night. I had sent an e-mail out to the staff Thursday night. ... I made an announcement to the student body [Friday morning] because we have a lot of our student organizations and underclassmen who participate in ceremonies. In the texting world in which we live, the information was already being shared and before I knew it, we had people in the school’s front yard.
“Information is still coming out,” Morgan added, “and there are allegations that it goes beyond the senior class. I am aware of two teachers’ files having been found, but now, there are allegations that at least four teachers’ computers may have been accessed and had things taken off of them.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience for us; just to realize the steps that we need to take as a district. We’ll be spending probably the whole summer getting the network secured to the point it needs to be; where the kids can still have access to information they need and we can still handle the confidential information, tests and grades and all of that. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Contrary to what has been reported in visual media, Morgan said he does not intend to resign as a result of this incident.