The mother of a Battle Ground Academy senior filed a lawsuit against the private school last week in hopes that a judge will force school officials to reverse their decision to charge her son with an honor code offense.
Michael "Andrew" Cornwell had a strong chance at being BGA's 2006 valedictorian until officials at the Franklin school accused him of "gaining an unfair advantage" in preparing for an essay exam.
Cornwell and three other students in an Advanced Placement class viewed a document-based essay question hours before an exam. The question, and documents that go along with it, were found at a classical studies Web site from an out-of-state high school. No answers were provided.
"He did not think there was anything wrong with looking at it," said Janna Eaton Smith, the attorney for Andrew Cornwell and his mother, Cathy.
School officials and BGA's student-run Honor Council determined that this gave the AP students an unfair advantage. They received a zero on the question, were assessed 20 demerits and have been placed on "probation."
With a zero on the exam, Andrew Cornwell earned a B in the class, Smith said, and his chances of having the highest grade-point average at BGA "are over." She said the honor code offense could also "hurt his chances of getting into (the University of North Carolina) and getting a scholarship."
Andrew Cornwell claims that another senior who also was in the running for valedictorian told on the students who looked at the downloaded question and documents.
"I think he was probably third in line," Smith said. "He's now going to be the valedictorian."
School officials refused to discuss the academic ranking of their seniors and said the valedictorian is not chosen until the end of the school year.
"BGA does not comment on any issues regarding specific students. However, in this case or any case, BGA fully stands behind our honor code," BGA President Bill Mott said in a written statement. "The foundation of our school is built upon the Honor Code and we will fully defend it in any case."
Students at BGA are required to write the words "I pledge" on tests and work they turn in. According to the school's Web site, this signifies that a student has pledged their honor to refrain from cheating, receiving or giving aid on a test or homework assignment, or disobey a teacher's instructions.
Smith said Cornwell didn't break the honor code and had no reason to cheat.
According to the lawsuit, Robert Walker, who teaches AP Modern European History, handed out the essay question and documents to the class Dec. 8, a day before the exam. He gave them 15 minutes to look at the information and take notes. Walker gathered their notes, the question and documents and told students they could have everything during the exam.
Smith said the last two essay exams given by Walker were take-home problems. Smith said Walker's instructions to the class were "very ambiguous."
"He never said you can't look at these again or you can't study for this," Smith said.
The lawsuit states that on Dec. 9, Andrew Cornwell was in the library during a study hall and found a classmate with a downloaded copy of the essay question. Andrew Cornwell began writing a general outline for his essay. Two other students also obtained copies of the question.
On Dec. 12, during an Honor Council meeting, of which Andrew Cornwell was a member, BGA Upper School Principal Larry McElroy reported that a student was suspected of downloading the question before the exam. Andrew Cornwell told McElroy that he and some classmates also had looked at the question.
Andrew Cornwell was called before the Honor Council and explained what had happened, the lawsuit states. McElroy later informed Andrew Cornwell that he had been found guilty of an honor code offense.
Cathy Cornwell, Andrew Cornwell's mother, tried to appeal the school's decision by going to BGA Headmaster John Griffith. In a letter dated Jan. 12, Griffith told Cathy Cornwell that the school would not change its position to charge her son with a honor code offense.
"We just want to be treated fairly by BGA and want the school to be honest with what happened," Cathy Cornwell said.
Bill Ozier, attorney for BGA, said the school had "bent over backward" to help explain the ambiguities behind the situation so as not to hamper Cornwell's chances of getting into a good college.
In Griffith's letter to Cathy Cornwell, he stated the term "warning" could be used instead of "probation" for colleges that ask if students ever received disciplinary action from their high schools.