When you cheat, they tell kids in school, you only cheat yourself, but in Baltimore, we've recently learned that's not always true. Sometimes you also cheat the students you're supposed to be teaching when you change the answers on their state standardized tests, and even worse, sometimes you cheat victims of heart attacks, strokes or traumas when you get inside information about the exam to become an emergency medical technician.
School officials and the top commanders at the fire department are fretting that their respective cheating scandals will damage public trust in their institutions, and that is certainly true, but the cumulative effect casts a pall on the entire city. Combined with the steady stream of police officers pleading guilty to their parts in a towing kickback scandal, reports of municipal workers drinking and shooting dice on the job, and worst of all, the resignation of a mayor found guilty of embezzlement, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that Baltimore is fundamentally corrupt and getting worse.
But the reports of city employees getting caught and punished for their misdeeds is not reason for total despair. They do confirm that some civil servants are dishonest, but they are also evidence that the city isn't trying to sweep that fact under the rug. Rather, city leaders are taking aggressive steps to punish those involved and to send the message that such behavior won't be tolerated. We should be concerned that city workers keep behaving badly. We should be more so if they stop getting caught.
The common thread between the schools cheating scandal and the one announced this week by the fire department is that in both cases, people faced immense personal pressure to perform on an exam and, rather than accept the honest outcome, found a way to game the system. In the schools, teachers or administrators erased wrong answers and penciled in the right ones after the fact, and in the fire department, someone evidently tipped off a class of cadets about what situations they would face in a practical exam of lifesaving skills so they would know what to prepare for. The pressure that prompted educators to take such a shortcut is a relatively new phenomenon, born of the recent move toward school accountability, but the idea of cheating on a civil service exam is hardly new.
What is crucial is how the officials in charge respond. Schools CEO Andrés Alonso has carried out a zero-tolerance policy on cheating and has recommended severe disciplinary action against those involved. Fire Chief James Clack's track record is less strong, but he appears to taking this opportunity to reassure the public of his department's integrity.
In 2007, five firefighters came under suspicion of cheating on exams linked to promotion. Mr. Clack, who was new to the department, reversed the city's human resources department's decision to re-administer the exam to all those who had taken that test, and all five firefighters — whose scores were significantly higher than the other test-takers — were eventually promoted despite the suspicion. Mr. Clack justified the promotions at the time by noting that the inspector general's report that first raised questions about the test was unable to definitively prove whether the cheating had taken place.
Mr. Clack's response this time has been better. The department has shut down its EMT training program and is launching its own investigation, in addition to the ongoing state probe that uncovered the problem in the first place. The department is also examining previous classes to see whether the cheating was an isolated incident, and it is making the 20 students who took the test on the day in question repeat it.
Once the department determines who was involved, it needs to take severe disciplinary action. That's important not only because of the message it sends about the integrity of the department but also because of the dire consequences of lax certification procedures in a public safety agency. The death in 2007 of fire cadet Racheal Wilson during a training exercise in which dozens of safety protocols had been violated should be reminder enough of how crucial it is to do things by the book.
If there is a bright side to this latest cheating scandal, it is that it didn't take a tragedy like Ms. Wilson's death for the problems to come to light. City, state and federal officials have stepped up their efforts in recent years to seek out corruption, and they're finding it. That should foster more public confidence than cynicism.