Cheating can be contagious, you know; if everyone is doing it, I don't want to be the chump left out. Or if everyone else is doing it, it's not really cheating, right?

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There’s a lot of cheating going on, but we shouldn’t let that dull our reaction to it.

Cheating can be contagious, you know; if everyone is doing it, I don’t want to be the chump left out. Or if everyone else is doing it, it’s not really cheating, right?

People can justify almost any behavior, which is why it makes sense to create rules and procedures that assume cheating is always possible, while encouraging people to believe it is a rare thing only flawed people do.

Informed safeguards and innocent outrage make a good preventive mix.

When I read that two people at Seattle’s Van Asselt Elementary School were being investigated because some money was unaccounted for, I was surprised, but not surprised.

I don’t know whether the people cheated or not. That’s what the investigation, which police are now conducting, is for, but the information has a familiar ring. It happens in business and government, any operation that has people involved.

Here’s some of what The Times reported last week: “The investigation, conducted by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, found $30,000 in unexplained cash withdrawals from an unauthorized school bank account and sloppy record-keeping. In addition, the investigation found that (Principal ElDoris) Turner accepted payments from a group using the school gym and did not turn the money over to the district, as was required.”

And although the investigation could not fully determine how the money was spent, the investigation report by the ethics commission said it “could not rule out the possibility that some of these funds were converted to personal use.”

Turner resigned last month after being placed on administrative leave. The district fired Ramona Fuentes, the school’s parent coordinator, who maintained the bank account along with Turner.

Having read about them, I had several immediate thoughts. They included questions about judgment and ethics.

Whether they misspent the money or were just sloppy in handling it, did they not recall the many headlines about people getting into trouble with money?

They work in education, and in a school whose children need whatever help that money could have provided. That is a situation that calls for extra care and strict accountability.

I do hope the investigation will find that the suspicion has all been a mistake.

Either way, mounting an investigation was the right thing to do. And I’m glad most of us are outraged at the thought of people in positions of responsibility violating the public trust. That isn’t something we ever want to become jaded about.

But people charged with ensuring the integrity of an institution can’t afford to be surprised that it can happen. They have to know it can happen. Most people can slip up, given the right circumstances, so it’s important to know what those circumstances are and to circumvent them.

Every situation has its own set of triggers, but a common one is the belief that others are handling things the same way you are, so it’s no big deal. How many people fudge a little here and there while preparing their taxes?

In some countries it’s much worse than here. The more it feels culturally acceptable, the more people will do it.

How many political campaigns ignore facts because they’re convinced that’s just the way it’s done, and besides, there are no consequences if your supporters don’t care.

The thing is, people who are breaking the rules usually see what they’re doing as wrong. There’s always a way to justify it. Maybe in this case, it really wasn’t cheating. Like I said earlier, we really don’t know yet, but institutions have rules and procedures to prevent innocent intentions from going wrong.

As long as we’re human, we’ll always have to rely on rules, procedures and community standards, including a capacity for outrage, to keep our systems in order.