It was early on a recent Monday morning, and the chief federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia was speaking to a slightly less-than-enthralled audience: about 825 high school sophomores.
Pacing a makeshift stage in the Westfield High School cafeteria in Chantilly, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty ticked off some of his office's most famous cases. He asked students if they had heard of Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged conspirator in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The students, some eating muffins or chatting, didn't react.
How about John Walker Lindh (whom he called "the American Taliban")? Nope. Convicted spy Robert P. Hanssen? Not a hand rose.
But when McNulty mentioned the NBA brawl in which Indiana Pacers players charged into the stands to fight with fans, the room snapped alert. Students laughed and clapped, so much that McNulty quieted them down.
The divergent reactions showed that students "are more influenced by pop culture than by the big issues of our day," said McNulty, whose job does not include sorting out the NBA brawl. "And that is alarming, because the ethical picture we see in pop culture is largely disturbing."
Ethics was on the Alexandria-based prosecutor's mind because he was at Westfield to speak as part of the school's fourth annual day-long ethics seminar.
High school students face numerous ethical choices today, from deciding whether to plagiarize papers from the Internet to whether to drink or ride in a car driven by a drunk friend. The recent rash of teen deaths in traffic accidents in the Washington area has only heightened the ethical debate.
Westfield designed the seminar under a mandate from the Fairfax County school system to include ethics instruction. Each year, the sophomore class listens to a speaker and then adjourns to the Westfields Marriott Hotel to discuss and role play how to react to ethical problems.
This year's scenarios included a drunken-driving accident and a situation in which a girl is fired from a store for stealing money and debates whether to list it on her résumé when she applies for another job.
"Some of the most important lessons you will learn in high school are outside the classroom, not inside. Today is one of those days," Principal Mike Campbell told students as he introduced McNulty.
The prosecutor focused his brief remarks on the relationship between ethics and character. He used the NBA brawl to make the point that Pacers star Ron Artest, who has been suspended for the rest of the season, should have shown more character "at the moment of truth" and stayed on the court.
"That's why character is important, because the way you react may determine your life," said McNulty, who at one point quieted raucous students with this observation: "Character is saying, 'When someone is talking, I think I should shut up and listen.' "
Ethics, McNulty said, "is about choosing right from wrong, doing the right thing. Character is about who you are, and how those decisions get made is based on the character that you have."
McNulty cited honesty, integrity and perseverance as qualities that make up good character, and he said that when he hires prosecutors, "the first thing I look at is what type of character this person has."
For a high school student, he said, character and ethics play into situations involving everything from drugs and sexual relations to plagiarism and downloading copyrighted material.
In the end, McNulty concluded: "Character matters."