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High-School Students Learn about Ethics

Before students from Westfield High and Mountain View School participated last week in an ethical decision-making workshop at the Westfields Marriott, FCC Chairman Michael Powell (Colin Powell's son) gave them some practical advice.

Referring to the saying, "The end justifies the means," he said ethics are all about the means and should be applied to every situation. He also said everyone needs 10 personal principles that are inviolate and never compromised.

When people always live by their principles, said Powell, it makes life much simpler. But this isn't always the case. "Imagine a chalk line between ethical and unethical behavior," he told the students. "There are many people with chalk on their feet — they are dancing around that line."

More than 750 students participating last Monday, Nov. 25, in this event sponsored by the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce. They broke into groups and attended workshops in which various scenarios were presented and the students got to test their own ethics, firsthand. One scenario dealt with business ethics, another focused on character education and a third centered around a hypothetical court case.

Participating in the courtroom drama were Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen MacKay and attorneys Gerald Ritzert and Edward Duffy. The case involved a girl who went to a party and drank so much that she was unable to drive home. But she needed to bring back the car and she didn't want to get in trouble for attending the party without telling her parents.

So her friend — who didn't have a driver's license and had never before driven a stick shift — tried driving her home in the car, herself. Along the way, she lost control of the vehicle, and the girl who'd drank too much was killed. The workshop students listened to the attorneys' arguments and then served as juries to determine the driver's guilt or innocence and punishment, if any.

"We said she wasn't guilty," said Westfield sophomore Lindsay Andres, 15. "Even though she made a mistake, she didn't purposely kill her. But it would have been better if she'd called her parents or someone else who could drive." She said it helps teens "think about what's right and wrong and what you'd do in those situations. It prepares us for when we get older and have to make decisions."

Classmate Brandon Garner, 16, said nearly his whole "jury" voted guilty. "What she did was just plain wrong," he said. "She had to think about what she did."

Westfield sophomore Ranj Saadallah, 16, also said guilty. "She had other choices," he explained. "It was better to get in trouble than lose a life. We argued about the consequence; we said 100 hours of community service and a fine [she paid herself]." He said the workshop "makes us think more about what are good choices."

Sophomore Sarah Pace, 15, said it was difficult because "we knew she didn't do it on purpose. I thought she wasn't guilty because she tried to do the right thing by getting her home safely. Others said guilty — she shouldn't have been driving."

Mountain View senior Chris Voloshin, 17, said guilty, "but punishment enough was her best friend dying. She's gonna have to live with it, the rest of her life."

Classmate Jewell West said she was guilty of involuntary manslaughter: "She should have had the courage to call her parents. We decided on two years in prison [so] she'd have time to reflect on what she did." Overall, West said the ethics workshop "teaches teen-agers abour respect, courage, morals and right from wrong."

Mountain View senior Zach Willis, 18, portrayed a witness in court. "I got to hang out with lawyers and a judge," he said. "Statistics say teens are more likely to run to friends than families [for advice] and don't think of things from a legal standpoint, but based on emotion."

Classmate Sarah Wallmark, 17 1/2, said the judge asked how many students would have done the same thing as the girl, and most raised their hands. "But at the same time, lots of them found her guilty," she said. "I learned that decisions can be hard and you have to have a good head on your shoulders to figure things out."

Senior Ashley Froehlich, portraying the defendant, was "excited because there was a real judge and real attorneys. I probably would have done the same thing. I really don't know if I'd make the right decision."

Westfield's Robert Gepford, 15, saw character-education scenarios. In one on racism, a poor black girl was accepted to Stanford, and a boy who wasn't said his grades were higher and she only got in because of race. But Gepford didn't buy it: "I think you've got to be smart to get into a school like that."

In a homosexuality scenario, a mother asked her son why he was acting differently, but he wouldn't answer. When she asked if he was gay, he said he had a girlfriend. When she asked if they'd had sex, he wouldn't respond. She told him, if he ever needed to talk, she'd be there.

"I learned that you can't shut everyone off," said Gepford. "You should clue them in on your life." He said the ethics seminar makes teens realize "once you get older, you have to be more responsible for your actions."

Kory Gebhart, 15, saw a business scenario about a nice woman whose work habits cost her company thousands of dollars. "We had to decide to do what's best for her or for the company," she said. "Most people said the company, because she'd cost them so much money." She said the ethics workshop opened her eyes to "what I'll be dealing with, in the next couple years."