Crying foul in Navy academics: Recent cheating case fuels debate over leniency for athletes


By Laura Sullivan

Baltimore Sun

Jan 24 2001

When two Naval Academy midshipmen hand identical naval history term papers, instructor Jessica Huckabey turned the pair in to the academy's honor board and expected both would be expelled.

Two years later, the students, both starting football players, have not been expelled, even though the academy's faculty handbook states that cheating will "normally result in separation" from the school. And neither was suspended from the team, despite the academy's history of suspending other athletes for similar offenses.

Instead, one received "honor remediation," which usually requires students to write an essay and restricts their free time. The other's case was never heard by the honor board. DeJuan Cromer of Dallas, now a junior, handed in a copy of a term paper in the spring 1999 that Arion Williams of Detroit, also a junior this year, had turned in four months before.

Cromer has played both seasons since the incident, including in back-to-back victories over Army. Williams, one of three midshipmen charged last summer with raping a fellow midshipman at an off-campus party in Arnold, played and practiced with the team until he was suspended in July, pending the outcome of his trial. Cromer, through a relative, and Williams, through his attorney, declined to comment.

Naval officials say that if any leniency was shown to Cromer and Williams, it was because they were freshmen, not because they were football players. They say the school will sometimes give freshmen a second chance, hoping that the young students can learn from their mistakes and grow to be more ethical and responsible during the ensuing three years.

Still, freshmen have been expelled from the academy for cheating, said a Navy official and several people who have served on the school's honor committee. And two sources familiar with academic life at the school said they believed cheating freshmen were more likely to be expelled than were upperclassmen, under a "weed them out early" philosophy. As far as suspension from athletic teams, one official said such decisions are "up to the team's coaches." The academy has been accused in recent years of doling out sometimes contradictory and arbitrary punishments that favor football players over other students.

The academy superintendent, Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, has made an effort over the past year to change that impression and limit the privileges football players receive — requiring, for example, that players march in all parades during the off-season, as is required of the rest of the school.

But the criticisms date to 1993, when administrators were accused of favoritism when the academy investigated 11 students for cheating and referred seven students who were not on the football team to the school commandant for expulsion. The four remaining students were football players. The incident launched the largest investigation in academy history, which resulted in 87 students being found guilty of cheating. In the end, four of the original seven referred to the commandant were retained.

In 1998, academy officials came under fire again when Navy star quarterback and senior Chris McCoy was accused of having sex off campus with a freshman. The freshman was also accused of having sex with two other students on campus. She and the two others were expelled. McCoy wasn't.

The academy's faculty handbook and the school honor code both define cheating as "to knowingly use unauthorized assistance as one's own efforts or to knowingly submit another's work or ideas claiming them as one's own." One source familiar with the investigation into Cromer's case called it "the most blatant case of cheating in years."

According to internal reports, Cromer was assigned in spring 1999 to write a 10-page paper on the CSS Alabama, a Civil War-era battleship. He turned in a paper titled "The Pacific Campaign: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal," discussing Naval efforts in the 1940s. The paper is nearly identical to one titled "The Pacific Campaign Theater: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal" that Williams turned in during the fall for the same class taught by a different instructor. Both begin: "In the negotiations between the United States and Japan, the United States had the upper hand because ..."

Instructor Huckabey, who has since left the academy, declined to discuss the details of the incident, but confirmed that Cromer turned in the same paper Williams had submitted four months earlier. She said she reported Cromer to the honor board, a committee of midshipmen representing all four classes thatreviews honor code violations such as lying and cheating. School officers review their findings and determine punishments. Williams was reported to the board a short time later, said one source familiar with the investigation. "I was surprised they weren't expelled," Huckabey said.

According to an honor board report of the incident, Cromer met with a history department "honors representative," Lt. Cmdr. Eric Reed. Reed informed Cromer of his rights and asked him if the paper was his own work. Cromer replied, "Yes, sir, it is," and reportedly added that he was not in a rush when he wrote the paper and that he had researched it himself.

At a later meeting, when confronted with the two papers, the report says Cromer acknowledged that he had lied and had not written the paper. The report says Williams "voluntarily gave [Cromer] the paper on a computer disk."

While it remains unclear whether Williams gave Cromer his paper with the understanding that Cromer would copy it, the documents reflect that both students were reported to the honor board. According to the report, Cromer told the board that turning

in other students' papers for assignments "goes on all the time" and is "widespread" within the freshman class."

According to the school's faculty handbook, a finding that a midshipman has violated the honor code "will normally result in separation" from the academy. The honor code requires that students not "lie, cheat or steal."

"They ensure that work submitted as their own, is their own," the honor code says. The honor code also demands that students "stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the full truth is known."

Other students who have faced the honor board have sometimes faced different consequences. According to the book "The Last Amateurs," by John Feinstein, basketball player Sitapha Savane took a cheat sheet into an exam in 1998 but put it away after using it on two questions. When the professor approached him after class, he confessed immediately, made no excuses and didn't

ask for special treatment, the book says. A first-time offender, he was suspended from the team for all of fall practice and four games during the season and was removed from the starting line-up. He was also put on school restriction. Though he was a junior at the time, he said he felt very lucky the school let him stay.

His friend and teammate, Jeremy Toton, said this week that team suspension was a common punishment among athletes whom the honor board finds guilty. He said Savane accepted his consequences without complaint. "Here's a guy who had a significant role in the athletic program at the academy," Toton said. "They made an example out of him. I would hope they would treat others the same way. I would hope they would treat football players the same way."

Bill Ferris, an academy graduate and Annapolis lawyer who has represented dozens of midshipmen facing expulsion, said that while he agrees with the academy that freshmen are often shown leniency, "the probability of someone turning in an identical paper, lying about it, and then admitting it, and still being retained at the academy is practically zero, based on my experience."

Javier Zuluagua learned that lesson firsthand. Zuluagua was one of the four football players originally retained at the academy during the 1993 cheating scandal. In 1994, after the Department of the Navy investigated, he was expelled. "For someone to cheat and stay at the academy, it's not fair," said Zuluagua, who now works for a title insurance company in Arizona. "But the first thing I learned at the academy is that life is not fair."