For a student who admitted he wasn’t particularly excited about the idea of waking up early, getting all dressed up, sitting around a table with six random classmates for six hours and spending all day debating ethics, Charles Mayah found himself squarely in the center of numerous moral and legal discussions.
On Tuesday morning, the 17-year-old Mayah, and 380 fellow South Lakes High School seniors, filed into the Reston Sheraton for last week’s 13th annual Ethics Day.
The Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce has been sponsoring South Lake’s annual Ethics Day—it was the first of its kind in Fairfax County—since Mayah and his classmates were in pre-school. And, like the previous 12 events, the 13th installment, which is also presented by Freddie Mac, had no shortage of thought-provoking comments and emotional debates about everything from choosing the most deserving recipient for heart transplant to deciding whether or not a fictional classmate should be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Organizers of the event say Ethics Day gives students a chance, outside of the traditional classroom setting and away from teachers and administrators, to discover and determine how individual and collective actions can and will affect their decision making in school, the workplace and society. "Students are given ethical dilemmas and are encouraged by table leaders to think together to make the best possible decisions given all consequences," said Matthew Brennan, co-chair of the Nov. 25 event. "We hope to provide the environment for tomorrow’s business leaders to free-think in an effort to build character, morality and thoughtfulness."
Mayah, for one, said the daylong event was an eye-opening experience. "I didn’t know what to expect when I got here," Mayah said. "I didn’t think it was this hard in the real world, but they have shown us that there are a lot of questions we don’t think about. This really made me think."
One of Mayah’s tablemates, Margit Severin, 18, had similar reservations before the Nov. 25 event. "To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really want to come to this," Severin said. "It’s been really interesting actually and many of these examples are situations that we teenagers could face on any given day."
THROUGHOUT THE DAY, the table leaders, volunteers from the area’s business community, were there to spur discussion and guide the students through the various scenarios. Mayah and Severin were joined in their group by fellow 12th graders Kate Thew, Andrew Horn, Victor Perez, Fabiola Saravia and Kyle Fettig. Local real estate agent Pat Flynn played referee to a table that, early on at least, found consensus difficult. "This is always a great experience. Before I did this, I guess my mind wasn’t as open as it should have been about teenagers today," said Flynn, who has taken part in Ethics Day for three years. "After doing this, you really realize what a great group of teenagers these young men and women are. More importantly, you see how thoughtful they are with their opinions and questions."
From the first debate on, Flynn’s group had trouble reaching unanimous decision. After hearing five emotional pleas, the students — acting as the Ethics Committee for Reston Hospital — were asked to choose which one, and only one, of five dying patients should receive a donor heart. The decision, they were told, would have to be unanimous.
For Thew and Horn, two of Mayah’s group members, the choice seemed simple: ‘Alan,’ a research physicist working on a cancer immunization project.
For Mayah, the choice also seemed clear: ‘Vladimir,’ a blue-collar auto-mechanic father of a three-year-old daughter, whose wife is six months pregnant.
Originally, the majority of the Mayah’s group sided with him, agreeing that Vladimir’s family was most dependent on him. "Are you trying to make me feel guilty?" Thew asked Mayah.
"Yes," he said. "You should feel guilty."
"Do you know how many people that Alan could save if he were to find a cure?" countered an animated Thew.
Thew took exception to Mayah’s arguments, instead insisting that the "greater good" would be to save someone who may be on the verge of finding the cure for cancer. And while the group could not come to a unanimous decision, the majority sided with Thew and Horn.
"That was a great example of what this is all about. There are no right or wrong answers," Flynn said. "It was really an interesting debate and both sides felt very strongly, but Charles wasn’t about to cave to pressure."
Severin was one of those last second converts to Thew and Horn’s arguments. "That was a difficult decision," Severin said. "What I learned today was that when you are dealing with ethics and ethical behavior, you have to put your own feelings aside and think of what is good for society."
IN THE NEXT ROOM, Flynn’s table took the role of jury while Gayl Y. Branum Carr, a judge with the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court presided over a mock trial. In the case, acted out by volunteers and members of the South Lakes drama department, a fictional South Lakes student accidentally kills a friend of hers whom she had driven home after a party. The driver did not have a license and had never driven a stick shift, the students learned during the trial. After hearing witnesses for both sides, groups were asked to come to a unanimous decision on whether or not the girl was guilty of involuntary manslaughter by showing that the killing was the "direct result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a callous disregard of human life.
Once again, Flynn’s group struggled to find common ground. And once again, it was Mayah who found himself in the minority.
"Regardless of whether she was helping her friend out, what she did is against the law," said Horn. "You can’t stretch the law. She didn’t know how to drive and she put lives at risk just to avoid getting in trouble."
Severin agreed. "The fact is, if [the defendant] had just gotten in a cab or called her parents they would both still be alive."
But Mayah said the defendant, "Alice Sky," was only doing something that all teenagers would do — help a friend in need and try to avoid getting in trouble. "You can’t send her to jail for that," he said. "It’s her friend's fault, not hers. She shouldn’t get in trouble for helping a friend."
Horn saw it differently. "She’s getting in trouble for making a bad decision," he said. "She made the decision, now she has to live with the consequences."
Ultimately after nearly 15 minutes of intense debate, five of Flynn’s seven group members sided with Horn while only Perez agreed with Mayah. Like nearly half of the groups in the room, Mayah couldn’t find that the defendant’s negligence was "gross."
Judge Carr pressed those groups who found Sky not-guilty. "How much more does she have to show to be gross?" Carr asked Evan Anderson, another group’s spokesperson. "What does she need to do for you guys to say she is guilty’"
Realista "Rely" Rodriguez, the South Lakes principal, sat in on a few of the various discussions, including some led by Carr, and she liked what she heard. "They are really able to speak their mind and defend their points of views," Rodriguez said. "Judge Carr really makes them think on their feet. She doesn’t let them get away with anything."
Almost 10 years ago, Melinda Martin, a South Lakes graduate, took part in the annual event as a student. This year, for the fourth time, Martin, the assistant director of the Teen Department at the Reston Community Center, was a table leader. "I still remember my experience here. These discussions and dilemmas stick with you," Martin said. "These are valuable exercises for seniors before they enter the real world, whether that is college, a job or the military."
The South Lakes student body president, Tyler Greene, said the value-judgments and ethical dilemmas discussed at the event are relevant to high school seniors almost every day. "Every week, it seems that we are facing similar decision that force us to make individual choices," Greene said. "While we might not face any life or death decisions like choosing a heart for someone, we might have to in the future."