Q. Two students in my class are constantly being disciplined for misbehavior. Recently I heard them whispering that they were afraid they would be caught for cheating on an exam. Should I tell the teacher?
A. Cheating on an exam is certainly a serious ethical lapse. But you have to be careful not to compound the problem by unnecessarily denigrating others.
This is a good time to review the criteria for talking about someone's faults or misdeeds. According to the classic work Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin, there are basically five guidelines. Only if all five are met may we speak negatively of someone. As an aid to memory, we can arrange them according to the letters of the alphabet:
ACCURACY – it is forbidden to exaggerate or embellish
BENEFIT – revelation must be the only way to way to obtain some constructive benefit.
CERTAINTY – we must be sure the information is reliable.
DESIRE – the teller's intention must be constructive, not vindictive.
EQUITY – the revelation must not cause undeserved damage to the subject. It's not equitable to protect one person at the expense of another.
You've made a good start by having beneficial intentions and by wanting only to transmit accurate information to the teacher. This takes care of "desire" and "accuracy". Equity is also served, since if they are caught cheating there is nothing undeserved about having their exam scores disqualified, as well as suffering some disciplinary consequences.
The certainty criterion is a little more problematic. You can't be absolutely sure your classmates cheated; the conversation you overheard is really too vague to provide definite information.
But the main problem here is benefit. What constructive objective is achieved by telling on these youngsters? Let's consider some candidates:
DAMAGE TO CLASSMATES: If one student cheats, then in some cases this will have a significant impact on grades of others. It may be permissible for someone to protect his own grade by letting the teacher know that someone else's grade is undeserved. But in your case this doesn't seem applicable. The undeserved grades of these two students will probably have a negligible effect on the grades of the rest of the class.
DISCIPLINE: Sometimes revealing someone's misbehavior is doing him or her a favor! Discipline from a teacher or parent, especially if it is provided in an understanding way, may be just what a person needs in order to motivate him or herself to improve behavior. But in your case the students involved are already discipline problems; it's highly unlikely that one more rebuke from the teacher or principal will really have an impact.
DECEIT: It's true that someone who cheats on the medical board exam is defrauding any future patients by misrepresenting his or her qualifications, so it may be appropriate to report cheating of this nature. But a routine quiz in middle school is not likely to result in an undeserved job or even school admission for your classmates.
Here's another consideration: If the teacher is unable to verify that cheating took place, then certainly nothing is to be gained by telling on these young people. Why should the teacher believe your story? Telling will only create an atmosphere of ill will.
The bottom line is that the "benefit" criterion is not really fulfilled in your case, and it seems that there is nothing to be gained by telling.
Maybe the next time there is an exam you can approach your classmates and offer to help them study! That's probably the most constructive thing you can do to reduce the cheating problem, and it will contribute to an atmosphere of cooperation, not of retaliation.
SOURCES: Chafetz Chaim section I:10, II:10; Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat II:30
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