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St. Petersburg High team wins national Ethics Bowl

Members of the St. Petersburg High School Ethics Bowl team, from left, Caroline Wallace, English teacher Leila Davis, Deividas “David” Gustainis and Jared Morgenstein show off their national title trophy.
Published Apr. 26, 2013

Should people be allowed to sell a kidney? Is it ethical to kill people using unmanned drones? Should college athletes get paid?

A group of St. Petersburg High seniors wrestled with these and other thorny questions in the first National High School Ethics Bowl competition earlier this month — and won.

Caroline Wallace, Deividas "David" Gustainis, Harsha Kuchampudi and Jared Morgenstein defeated a North Carolina homeschool team to take top honors in the tournament, held at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Sixteen teams from 10 states competed in the event, hosted by the university's Parr Center for Ethics.

"It was one of my proudest moments," said Gustainis, who like his teammates is a student in St. Petersburg High's International Baccalaureate program.

They also are members of the school's debate team. But, unlike debates, students in ethics bowls don't always have to choose sides on an issue. According the Parr Center, teams win "by showing that they have thought more carefully, deeply and perceptively about the cases in question."

Said Wallace: "We analyze cases in various ways to justify certain ethical viewpoints, to see if the ends of actions justify the means."

The team's win marks the growth of such tournaments in Pinellas.

Sherman George, an adjunct instructor in the ethics department at St. Petersburg College, organizes regional events for both high school and collegiate teams. He said ethics bowls have grown in popularity in recent years.

Six years ago, when he first started organizing events for high school students, only four teams from two schools participated. A recent regional tournament fielded 12 teams from eight schools.

"Next year, we are going to do a league," George said. "We'll probably have ethics bowls a couple of times between schools before the regionals and nationals."

Some schools do not have an ethics bowl team or a debate team, and some have one but not the other. The same goes for ethics or debate elective classes.

The members of the St. Petersburg High winning team, for example, belong to the debate club and had taken debate as an elective, said Leila Davis, an English teacher and debate coach.

Forming such teams can be challenging, she said. Students in other high schools are interested in forming clubs and teams but can't find a faculty sponsor.

"Most of it occurs after school and the tournaments are on weekends, some of them all weekend, and then there are practices after school," Davis said. "It's hard to get someone to commit to that, especially during debate season from September to March, when we have practices every day after school."

When students do participate, they develop valuable skills. George said it gives him hope to see them in action.

"At UNC-Chapel Hill, there are these groups of kids, about 200 students, yelling and screaming about ethical issues, and they are discussing them instead of the latest Lady Gaga tune," he said. "And they're doing it with a kind of deep understanding I wish some of our politicians would get."

Gustainis said the competition helps students appreciate different perspectives.

"Ethics bowl is less about researching but about having a reasoned argument and exploring the ethical issues of a situation," he said.

"You're sitting down and contemplating the situation for a long time … Once you find a position, it kind of enters your conviction system."

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