A heart becomes available for transplant, and four patients are eligible to receive it — a 45-year-old white doctor on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer, a 27-year-old Pakistani auto mechanic with a wife and three children, a 19-year-old African-American student who is engaged to be married, and a 34-year-old white female business executive who takes care of her parents and is very successful. Who should receive the heart? This was a decision that had to be made by the seniors of South Lakes High School last week.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, approximately 340 South Lakes seniors gathered at the Reston Sheraton to experience "Ethics Day," an annual program that has been going on for the last 16 years. Seniors move through four different hour-long modules, each of which presents situations that provoke discussion of moral obligations and where to draw the line between right and wrong.
"Our whole thing is not to lecture them or tell them what to think — and high school seniors especially don't like to have people telling them what to think," said Matt Brennan, an Ethics Day facilitator. "This is all about process because you can't inculcate values in one day."
Brennan has been participating in Ethics Day for nine years and helped to bring the program to Madison High School and Marshall High School .
IN THE HEART TRANSPLANT module, students had to decide which person they would elect to receive a heart. Four student actors from South Lakes High School played each of the patients and pleaded their individual cases. The seniors were divided up into small groups, and each table had to come up with a consensus on who would receive the transplant.
"If in fact your table does not have a consensus, nobody will get the heart, and they will die," said Howard Svigals, facilitator for the module. "This is a heart transplant dilemma, and this happens around the country all the time."
Students had some difficulty reaching a unanimous choice, but ultimately each table picked a patient and explained their reasoning. The majority of tables picked the African-American 19-year-old, citing her youth as the primary factor. The doctor on the verge of curing cancer was another popular choice, and the 34-year-old white female executive was never picked.
"The objective is to understand how your personal values and biases impact the choices you make," said Svigals to the students. "This is a different kind of learning process."
Senior Loghman Fatfahi said that he did not like the concept of tabulating the value of a human life.
"I have a fundamental problem with the process of placing a value on someone's life over another person's life… I just think this is wrong," said Fatfahi.
His remarks received a round of applause from his classmates. Svigals said that he certainly agreed with that reasoning, but that the exercise was simply meant to make students think.
"This is only one-dimensional and life has many more dimensions," said Svigals. "But the fact that all of the tables came to a consensus is important because not making a decision is a decision in itself … in this many-dimensional world, there are choices you have to make, and alternatives you have to pick."
IN THE MEDIA ROOM module, students were shown four movie clips that presented a moral dilemma. In the first clip, a corrupt police captain attempts to force a new officer to do drugs, and in the second clip, a man finds out that his friend will be executed in Malaysia, unless he returns to accept his share of a drug-trafficking crime and serve 3-6 years in a Malaysian prison. The third clip shows a father and son — both surgeons — arguing over the fact that the alcoholic father botched a recent surgery, killing the patient. The father wants the son to sign a form clearing him of blame. The fourth clip was the final scene of "Crash," and showed the escalation of racial misunderstanding, which results in the death of one of the characters.
Media Room facilitators Kate Fulkerson and Ken Chadwick asked students questions after each of the clips were played. Since the clips became progressively more complicated in nature, the student responses became increasingly varied. In particular, the scene between the father and son raised many questions. Fulkerson asked students if a familial relationship changed the moral obligations of a situation.
"I would sign [the form], and I wouldn't tell," said Michael Aranoff. "I mean, it's my dad."
However, Nadia Jelvani pointed out that covering up for a relative is detrimental to that relative in the long run.
"You're doing him a disservice … that's an addiction that he needs to take care of," said Jelvani.
THE COURTROOM module presented students with a case based on a real incident that happened in Northern Virginia a couple of years ago. A 16-year-old high school student and her 15-year-old friend were supposed to go to the library to study, but when the 16-year-old picked up her friend she informed her that they were actually going to a party. At the party, the 16-year-old became intoxicated and her friend decided to drive them home, even though she did not know how to drive stick shift and did not have a driver's license. On the way home, the 15-year-old lost control of the car and crashed, killing her best friend.
Fairfax County Juvenile District Court Judge Gayle Carr presided over the mock courtroom, with two adult volunteers acting as the prosecutor and the defense attorneys. In addition, South Lakes student actors played the roles of the defendant Alice Sky, and the witnesses. After listening to the case, the students were asked to come to a verdict at their small group tables, and several tables were unable to reach agreement.
"The best part is listening to them deliberate at each of the tables," said Carr.
Senior Ann Hansan fought vigorously with her fellow table-members over the innocence of Alice Sky.
"I would have made the same mistake too," said Hansan. "I'm sure she did not get in that car thinking she was going to kill her best friend."
Hansan added that she did not think the defendant had been negligent since she was not intoxicated, but senior Michael Branigan disagreed and said that people who make bad decisions should be penalized.
"She should have made the right decision and not put her friend in danger," said Branigan. "I feel bad for her, I really do."
After giving the tables time for discussion, Carr walked around the room and asked one person at each table to stand and give their verdict. She questioned each student about their table's decision.
"It's good practice for you to have to stand and articulate an opinion, and have everybody gawking at you," said Carr.
Four of the tables declared the defendant to be not guilty, and two declared her guilty. Four tables had a majority of their members in favor of a not guilty verdict and one table was completely split down the middle. Those in favor of a not guilty verdict cited the defendant's young age as one factor, but other students said that age does not matter.
"Just because she's 15 doesn't make anyone less dead," said Mike Aranoff. "She was left with other choices."
Other proponents of a guilty verdict said that Alice Sky had a moral obligation to stop her friend from drinking.
"That's a lot of responsibility to put on a friend," said Carr. "Is that realistic? A lot of teenagers in Fairfax County drink, and they are well under 21."
MATT BRENNAN facilitated the "Bad Samaritan" module in which students were shown a "60 Minutes" clip on David Cash, a University of California Berkeley engineering student who became infamous in 1998 after his best friend raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl in the bathroom of a casino. Cash was in the bathroom right before it happened, and despite seeing his friend restrain and threaten the girl, Cash walked out and did nothing. When his friend emerged from the bathroom 22 minutes later and informed him that he had killed her, Cash still did nothing and the two boys continued to gamble all night.
The friend was eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison with no parole, but Cash could not be charged with any crime. Students at Berkeley tried to have Cash expelled from the school, but were unsuccessful. Cash was unapologetic for his inaction, and stated in several interviews that he would not have done anything differently and did not feel that he had done anything wrong.
After the "60 Minutes" interview was shown, Brennan asked students what they thought, and they unanimously denounced Cash as a despicable person. However, Brennan then presented students with another situation — a doctor who passes by a dying homeless person, but ignores him even though it is within his capability to save his life. Brennan asked students if they considered the doctor as morally reprehensible as David Cash.
"All of these ethical decisions arise from drawing a line, so where do you draw the line?" asked Brennan.
The question sparked a debate on the moral obligations of an individual.
"If I know I can do something myself directly to save someone's life, I'm gonna do it," said Petheree Norman.
Senior Samantha Lindsey agreed with her classmate, and said that both situations required some sort of action.
"They are both equally guilty of a similarly bad wrongdoing," said Lindsey. "The David Cash situation was more violent, but the results are the same, which is why they're both equally guilty."
Several of the students brought up the fact that the 7-year-old girl was a young child, while the homeless man was an adult who may have ended up in his predicament as a result of substance abuse. However, senior Nadia Jelvani said that she felt the personal background of the victims was irrelevant.
"When it comes down to it, you can't decide the value of someone's life," said Jelvani. "It doesn't make a difference … the point is that it's happening, and you have an obligation to do something."
At the end of the module, Brennan said that while David Cash was an extreme example, "there's a little David Cash in all of us."
"This module is all about what your moral obligations are to other people in society," said Brennan. "We didn't answer any questions, but hopefully we got you thinking about some things — just remember, you always have choices."