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ALTON, Ill. - The Southern Illinois University dental school in Alton has suspended the grades of its entire first-year class while it investigates allegations of academic misconduct.

Officials at the SIU School of Dental Medicine declined to go into detail about what they're investigating and wouldn't use the word "cheating" to describe the potential infraction.

Recent allegations have "called into question the academic merit of student work," said university spokesman Greg Conroy. He said the problem surfaced in May, and all 52 students in the Class of 2010 have received incomplete grades.

He wouldn't say how many students are suspect or when the investigation is expected to end.

An anonymous letter sent to the Post-Dispatch and several other media outlets said students have lost scholarship offers that require full transcripts, as well as research opportunities and stipends.

"Grades must be released and research must continue immediately until this investigation is concluded," the letter stated. "The charges against the class are unfounded and represent nothing more than a Witch Hunt among the Year I Class."

The letter said it was sent on behalf of the entire class, and included the typed name of each student, but no signatures. The letter said the university never specifically told students how they violated university rules but said the suspect work could include anything from cheating to theft of university property to misuse of documents.

According to the letter, the infraction involved student advisers distributing tests from previous years to the first-year class. The letter stated that this is a standard practice condoned by the university so students can understand the testing style of each teacher, and that the old tests have been passed down for 20 years. Some students deleted or added to their files through the years, so students traded files by e-mail to provide everyone the same information.

The transfer of test files between first-year students was the alleged problem, according to the letter. University officials would not confirm or deny that this was the subject of the investigation.

Conroy said students are being interviewed, and anyone suspected of academic dishonesty would be offered due process before the Student Conduct Committee.

"Personal integrity and ethical standards form the foundation of all health care professions, including dentistry," said Ann Boyle, dean of the dental school. "This matter raises questions about the integrity and ethical behavior of Year I students and is, therefore, under investigation."

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