The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado has expelled 22 students and put hundreds more on probation for cheating and plagiarism while learning from home in 2020, the school’s top officer said Wednesday.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Colorado Springs college decided to send all freshmen, sophomores and juniors home for the final months of the spring 2020 semester while seniors finished out their last year on campus.
The sudden switch to distance learning invited one of the most widespread spates of academic misconduct in the academy’s history. Away from campus, students sought help on unauthorized websites, plagiarized papers and collaborated on tests.
The vast majority of cadets who were suspected of cheating — 231 of the 245 students — admitted to their actions, according to a presentation given by USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark at an academy board meeting. That’s about 6% of the more than 4,000 cadets who attend the academy each year.
In total, 210 cadets were put on probation, which typically lasts six months, and 22 were kicked out. Probation typically involves suspending a student’s ability to leave campus, wear civilian clothes, participate in sports or other clubs and hold jobs, and requires journal entries and meetings for honor code-related discussions.
All cadets who were given probation have completed it, USAFA spokesperson Brian Maguire said in an email Thursday.
Seven were also found not to have violated academy rules. Three had their cases dropped, and two are awaiting a final decision.
This is the academy’s most complete accounting of the cheating’s fallout so far. The student-run process of meting out punishments was still underway when the school went public with the incident in January 2021. At the time, one cadet had been expelled and one had resigned because of their misconduct, USAFA spokesperson Mike Slater said.
It became a wake-up call that the academy’s honor code needed a fresh look for the first time in several years.
“We needed to … step back and look at how we’re developing our cadets and how we’re helping to instill that ‘living honorably’ [piece],” Clark said.
Members of the USAFA community, including cadets, alumni and other constituencies, spent a few days fleshing out the main problems at hand and how to address them.
They settled on three priorities: emphasizing why living honorably is important at the academy and beyond; rebuilding trust in USAFA and each other; and rethinking how much and when to instill the school’s core values throughout a student’s four years there.
The group worried cadets weren’t seeing the honor code consistently enforced, or that they didn’t have enough positive role models on campus. Faculty and staff can play a bigger role in that regard, Clark said.
And, he added, the school has to give students time and space for personal growth. Lessons on honesty, integrity and hard work can start even earlier than when a cadet steps foot on campus, and are particularly important for setting freshmen up for success.
“We realize that everybody doesn’t come from the same background. They don’t have the same focus or view of living honorably, and we have to meet them where they are,” Clark said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept where they are. But we have to … help them to get where we need them to be.”
USAFA has expanded its curriculum and staffing related to the honor code and updated its definition of tolerated behavior at the school, among other changes.
Clark hopes the updates are working: Honor code violations have dropped from 311 in the 2020-2021 school year to 44 in 2021-2022 — respectively the highest and lowest points since at least 2009.
But it’s too soon to tell whether good behavior is a result of more obedient cadets or if people are being extra cautious following the latest crackdown.
“One positive thing is that our freshman class … which normally has a pretty significant number of the honor cases, were much lower,” Clark said. “In fact, they were lower than the upper class and usually it’s the opposite. So that’s one indicator that maybe we’re making a difference.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.