Last year at about this time, a senior at Chapel Hill High School wrote a front-page column in the school newspaper under the headline, "Cheating plagues Chapel Hill High."Jane Hannon, now a freshman at Hamilton College in New York, wrote that cheating had become so commonplace that it was impossible to ignore. Students shared work, copied answers and otherwise took unethical shortcuts -- and consistently got away with it, she wrote, because some teachers apparently didn't notice and "others just don't care." To Hannon's surprise, she said, what happened after her piece ran was ... nothing. Nobody -- no faculty members, no administrators, nobody -- approached her to follow up on her observations or to ask for specifics. The response, or lack thereof, seemed only to reinforce one of Hannon's points: Nobody in authority appeared to be willing to deal with, or even acknowledge, the problem -- which of course only encouraged more cheating.Until pressure from the press and public forced its hand, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system responded to the cheating mess that blew up last week at CHHS with more of the same sweep-it-under-the-rug approach.Some 10 to 12 students thus far have been implicated in two separate incidents. In one, a student used a camera phone during school to snap a photo of a teacher's answer sheet and shared it with students who were taking the exam later. In the other, students obtained a master key to the school and entered the building at night in order to obtain test answers, according to other students.CHHS Principal Jackie Ellis revealed the incidents in an e-mail she sent to parents on Feb. 21. In response to the resulting clamor for more information, the school system called a news conference on Tuesday -- but brought no faculty or administrators from either CHHS or Lincoln Center to provide information or answer questions. Spokeswoman Stephanie Knott was the sole representative from the schools, and she had incomplete, and in some cases incorrect, information.Having senior officials present would have been an indication that this was a big deal -- clearly not the message the school system wanted to send. Unfortunately, it is a big deal, and trying to minimize it and dismiss it as "an isolated incident" only exacerbates the problem. Nobody likes to talk about bad news. There's a natural inclination to want to deal with things like this quietly and to, as the old song goes, accentuate the positive. But cheating shouldn't be talked about in a whisper. It should be hollered about, loud and clear and often, so that nobody can possibly avoid hearing it or misconstrue the message: Cheating is wrong. Cheating is unacceptable. Cheating will not be tolerated.If you deal with it only behind closed doors, nobody outside the doors gets the message. By unfairly tilting the playing field, cheating robs those who do their own work of their legitimate and hard-earned place. In a case like this, it also tarnishes the whole school, the honest as well as the dishonest. You can point to all manner of factors to explain why kids cheat, and why schools -- not just CHHS, by any means -- may want to downplay it: Popular culture, where all too often winning is the only thing. The pressure to get top grades and into the best schools. The single-minded emphasis on testing, in which, as Hannon wrote, "the general focus has shifted from raising a complete person to creating a high scoring test-taker." All factors worth talking about. None justify cheating. It in no way absolves the students of their responsibility for their actions to point out that everybody else -- faculty, administration, parents and other students -- has a responsibility as well. All have a role to play in building and maintaining -- in insisting upon -- an environment in which honest work is valued and rewarded, and dishonest work is not tolerated. Cheating flourishes under neglect. It withers under the bright light of attention.