You gotta be crazy! Cheating students plead insanity

An insanity defense is nothing new for criminals, and now it seems to be working for some UVA cheaters.

UVA physics professor Louis Bloomfield made national headlines in May 2001 when he brought evidence to the Honor Committee which resulted in charges against 158 current and former students in his "How Things Work" course. After hearing rumors of students copying papers from previous semesters, Bloomfield created a computer program that searched papers written since spring 1999 for identical six-word strings.

Of the 158 students suspected of plagiarism, the Committee referred 59. By the end of the trials six months ago, 20 students had been found guilty and six not guilty; 18 had left the University before a trial; and three cases were dropped before trial.

What about the remaining 10?

One of the most overlooked aspects of the case turned out to be some students who pleaded insanity, or the presence of a so-called "contributory mental disorder," that should prevent them from being ousted from the University.

Ten students who were referred to trial were granted psychological evaluations by a panel of mental health professionals and were found to have a disorder that may have impaired their judgment and driven them to cheat.

But is the pressure in Mr. Jefferson's academical village of overachievers so great that it could drive someone to cheating on a final?

"I don't think it's likely that ten students who genuinely have mental disorders would be able to get by at UVA on a daily basis," says fourth year student Liz Murley. "It seems unfair that the other 48 students faced the possibility of suspension because they weren't willing to claim a mental disorder."

"Each student is evaluated on a case by case basis," says Honor Committee Chair Carey Mignerey. Successful past pleas of insanity included students who "had forgotten to take their medication" or who were suffering from "severe depression" when the cheating occurred.

As long as they don't pose a "significant risk," or there's little likelihood of their cheating again, students with a proven contributory mental disorder can avoid suspension if they consent to counseling and follow-up visits with the Dean of Students.

While the option of an insanity plea was in place before the Bloomfield trial, the Honor Committee saw a "large request for psychological evaluations," perhaps from students who "may have interpreted it as an 'out,'" says Mignerey. He also points out that the Bloomfield students may have been better-informed of their options thanks to the highly publicized nature of the cases– which were covered on 60 Minutes as well as on the front page of the New York Times.

 Details of the trials, as well as the names of the expelled and exonerated students, however, remain secret.

Since November, the Honor Committee has made changes in the way it handles the claim of a contributory mental disorder. According to Mignerey, the Committee has seen more serious assertions of mental disorders, yet in a smaller number of cases.


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