Kansas teacher resigns after plagiarism crackdown is thwarted by the school board
PIPER, Kan. (AP) — High school teacher Christine Pelton wasted no time after discovering that nearly a fifth of her biology students had plagiarized their semester projects from the Internet.
She had received her rural Kansas district’s backing before when she accused students of cheating, and she expected it again this time after failing the 28 sophomores.
Her principal and superintendent agreed: It was plagiarism and the students should get a zero for the assignment.
But after parents complained, the Piper School Board ordered her to go easier on the guilty.
Pelton resigned in protest in an episode that some say reflects a national decline in integrity.
“This kind of thing is happening every day around the country, where people with integrity are not being backed by their organization,” said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif.
Josephson pointed to the Enron bankruptcy scandal, in which an executive whistle-blower had warned superiors about the potential consequences of energy trader’s off-the-books business deals.
Also in recent months, some of the nation’s top historians, including Stephen Ambrose, have been accused of borrowing passages from other authors without proper credit.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis was suspended without pay for a year from Mount Holyoke College after lying to his students about serving in Vietnam. Notre Dame University football coach George O’Leary resigned after falsifying his athletic and academic achievements on his resume.
“It’s so hard to keep sending the message that character counts when you have officials saying it doesn’t count that much,” Josephson said.
In Piper, about 20 miles west of Kansas City, Mo., students got that message loud and clear, Pelton said.
“The students no longer listened to what I had to say,” she said. “They knew if they didn’t like anything in my classroom from here on out, they can just go to the school board and complain.”
Piper High School junior Brandon Schmalz, 17, agreed. “That was bad. She was right, and they were wrong,” Schmalz said of the board.
Pelton, 26, resigned days after the board ordered her to give the students partial credit and to decrease the project’s value from 50 percent of the final course grade to 30 percent.
Board president Chris McCord did not give a reason for the Dec. 11 decision, which was made behind closed doors. He said it was not prompted by parents’ complaints.
“If I had known all the publicity that would have come with this, I would still make the same decision,” McCord said.
One of the complaining parents was Theresa Woolley, who told The Kansas City Star that her daughter did not plagiarize. Rather, her daughter was not sure how much she needed to rewrite research material, she said.
But Pelton said the course syllabus, which she required students to sign, warned of the consequences of cheating and plagiarism.
Rutgers University professor of management Donald McCabe, who has researched academic dishonesty in high schools and colleges, said many teachers ignore cheating, and the Kansas episode illustrates why.
“Parents are going to complain to principals and the school board, and teachers feel there’s no reason to believe they’ll get support,” said McCabe, whose study of high school students in 2000-01 found that 74 percent had cheated or plagiarized during the prior year.
What is worse, McCabe said, is that tolerance of dishonesty disheartens other students, who have to compete with the cheaters to get into college.
“If they see teachers looking the other way, students feel compelled to participate even though it makes them uncomfortable,” McCabe said. “The loss of that sense of fairness is the fundamental reason students cheat.”
In Kansas, at least a dozen teachers have said they plan to leave the district after the school year because of the episode, said Lee Quisenberry, a teachers union representative.
“You can get away with anything whether you’re honest or not,” Pelton said. The board’s decision hurt “the honest people, and that’s the worst thing about it.”