Last year, amid the pandemic, reports emerged that some thirty candidates in the Georgia State Trooper academy were accused of cheating on an online exam. It resonated across the nation because it mirrored the behavior many saw taking place at our universities and colleges. The stakes were much higher, though. The candidates were disciplined severely, many being dismissed from the program and the director and deputy directors of the Georgia Public Safety Commission both resigned. In addition, because the cheating occurred on a test involving the writing of speeding tickets and the cadets had since written almost two hundred tickets, most violations were thrown out.

The article in USA Today described the cheating behavior in detail:

Investigators found the cadets utilized written or typed notes, received direct assistance from another cadet (test   answers), utilized test questions and answers posted by a cadet on the GroupMe online application, and queried an internet search engine for test questions and answers,” the department said.

DPS added two Snapchat group chats were created, which included members of the class. There were 33 members of the 106th Trooper School, the department said — before Wednesday, one was already dismissed, another resigned and a third is on military leave.

According to the DPS, the allegations were:

  • Everyone in the 106th Trooper School Cheated on the Speed Detection Operator Exam
  • A cadet at the time had helped other cadets with their online exams
  • Three cadets at the time had assisted another cadet with passing his exam;
  • A training instructor had printed a written makeup exam and permitted two cadets who had failed the exam to return to their dorm rooms with the make exam and turn it in the next date.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. After all, the behavior described in the reports sounded similar to cheating behavior we saw across higher education last year.  It was a sad story, one that underscored the assault on integrity in a year where remote instruction had necessarily become the norm.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the courtroom.

In January, nearly all of the troopers were cleared by an investigation from the Georgia POST council, an independent council of state government. To be honest, I was surprised. How could the Georgia Department of Public Safety get the investigation so wrong? I read through nearly every article I could find about the POST investigation and the clearing. After all, perhaps there was some takeaway from their investigation that we should consider in higher ed. Perhaps there was something we could use as a case study for our students and for integrity professionals. As I read article after article, they sounded eerily similar. They sounded, frankly, like they had come from the same press release.

Most of these reports reiterated the same blurb about POST’s conclusion: that while the cadets clearly had collaborated without the permission of the instructor, they had not intended to cheat. In summary, it was all a big misunderstanding, despite the fact that the instructor had said, repeatedly, that cadets were told they were not to work together. It’s as if a college professor told her students they couldn’t share notes, talk, or work together while completing an exam, found out they did, and yet was told by a reviewer that they could see inside the student’s mind and ascertain they hadn’t intended to cheat. Worse yet, it appeared that the cadets were asked if they had intended to cheat. Considering that a lifelong career was on the line, the answer they gave was unsurprising.

I wanted to read more and so I kept looking for one of the local news agencies (11 Alive News or even CNN) to link out to a summary report. Most referred to a report, but none of them appeared to have lain eyes on it.

I reached out to an investigative reporter at a local news station and asked if I was just missing it, and if he could point me in the right direction. He responded by saying that, under normal circumstances, he would have run a parallel investigation and requested the report under the open records act. This was not, he said, normal circumstances. Keep in mind, we were only twenty days away from the riot at the US Capitol and the nation held its breath waiting to see how the inauguration of President Biden would transpire. In other words, I could understand why he didn’t have the bandwidth to chase down an old story, especially one that had been presumably cleared by an independent agency. He gave me POST’s contact info and suggested that I request the documents. You know, all 8,000 of them.

So, I did. At least, I reached out to POST, and asked about getting the summary report. This should be easy, after all. It was referenced in the first paragraph of this piece by the AJC.

Turns out, it doesn’t exist. I asked twice. But I was told by a very nice, but very terse public relations person that I was welcome to all 10,000 pages (which she offered to put on a disk for $20), but no summary report would be included. I’m ordering that disk. It turns out that the most comprehensive analysis of the Georgia State Patrol and POST’s investigation was completed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who apparently reviewed the 8,000 pages available to POST and the 1,500 pages provided by the GSP investigation. Their final conclusion? “What mattered to one set of investigators,” they said, “didn’t quite register with the other.”

Now, I’m not sure what any of this adds up to. The executive director of POST, Mike Ayers, must have been referencing something when he made this statement. But did he, alone, read the 10,000 pages covering the actions of 32 fired state troopers? And if not, how did he or the agency overseeing this investigation come to the questionable conclusion that, although they did cheat, the trooper cadets’ intentions were not to cheat, therefore absolving them.

I’m not an investigative reporter. I was a hearing officer for academic misconduct cases for four years, and in that time a student’s “intent to cheat” was never a standard we strove to meet. After all, we can’t peer into someone’s mind and discern their intentions. We have an evidentiary standard and if the evidence meets that standard, the student is found responsible. I understand that law enforcement has a different standard, but doesn’t that underscore how odd this finding was? After all, if you don’t mean to kill someone, but do so anyway, you’re charged with manslaughter. Likewise, if you didn’t “intend” to cheat, but did so, shouldn’t you hold some culpability? It feels weird having to explain this to law enforcement professionals and those overseeing them, but here we are.

There are a lot of reasons why the state of Georgia and POST would have embraced this finding. It was ugly and it made national news.  More troubling is the methodology that it seems that POST employed. Despite the fact that the instructors stated they had made it clear to the cadets that they were not to collaborate (online or otherwise), POST established that the candidates didn’t have the intention to cheat by…asking them if they had intended to cheat. Unsurprisingly, all but one cleared that low bar.

Why does it matter?

Maybe they did sweep this all under the rug, or maybe there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why these cadets (students) were cleared without the kind of documentation or reasoning people who normally deal with integrity incidents would expect to see.

However, this story does provide a window into the importance of transparent oversight. Without being able to follow the state’s reasoning or the evidence upon which they based that reasoning, questions will remain. Are these cadets truly innocent or were they the beneficiaries of an investigation designed to find them (and their superiors) innocent? The main takeaway for those of us doing academic integrity work is to make sure that our decisions and the methods we use to arrive at them are understandable to the communities we serve. They must also survive the scrutiny of those asking serious questions about what we do. Without that, we’re a bigger punchline than anything Steve Guttenberg could deliver.