Six students at a local high school that several of our youth group students attend were suspended last week for hacking into the school’s computer system to change their grades and access upcoming test material. This probably would have been a newsworthy blurb on its own and a conversation about cheating and technological security, but the emotional response of the assistant principal of the school has pushed this story to another level.

The assistant principal called this, “Our (worst) technological nightmare” and said, “This case is unique in its depth of complexity and depravity.” Now, of course cheating is wrong, but this response sounds a tad melodramatic. Does the high-tech nature of this cheating make it any worse than old-fashioned cheating (e.g., students writing answers on their palms)?

Not many details of this story have been revealed, but it sounds pretty clear that these students were under enormous pressure to succeed. From the same memo, “The eight students are all Advanced Placement students, they are all smart, but they have no wisdom.” Students today live in an overscheduled, high-pressure, win at all costs environment, often beginning from kindergarten. While this does not excuse cheating in any way, it does describe the desperation some students experience.

[The assistant principal] wrote that the pressure to get into a good college “has overly consumed one of our students. He described to his father and me how his transcripts were altered” and how he delivered them to a college. “As the student talked, I watched his father’s face and I could see his 18-year dream of his child’s UC education disappear.”

However, instead of delivering an angry harangue against the immorality of these students, isn’t it more helpful to begin creating a more healthy educational environment? If the administration recognizes the fact that students are under enormous familial pressure to succeed, wouldn’t it make sense to help these families instead of simply condemning them (as the assistant principal appeared to do during a conversation with one student’s family about morality).

A couple of years ago, I heard the story of one student from Texas whose parents refused to attend his high school graduation because he didn’t get into his reach school. That fall, he would attend a great public university, but it didn’t carry the name-brand value of the big private schools for his folks so they figured, why bother?

It’s vital to help our families, especially as followers of Christ, re-frame our understanding of educational success. What good is it to have kids who can really take a good standardized test, but who are so stressed and burned out that they hardly have anything left over? The spiritual formation of our kids into the character of Christ, especially during their crucial adolescent years, must not be ignored because we’re so caught up in the rat race of “success.”