Ethical Educator

Plagiarizer From Her Past
School Administrator, March 2019

Scenario: The district’s deputy superintendent receives a call from a college student she knows from her principal days. The collegian says a friend lifted for her own use without credit part of a document the deputy superintendent wrote years ago about evaluating new teachers that resides on the deputy superintendent’s personal web page. The college student believes her friend will be expelled if the professor discovers the original document and begs the deputy to remove the paper from her website to prevent her friend’s academic career from being ruined. What should the deputy superintendent do?

Max McGee: 
This particular dilemma is an excellent example of the daily distractions administrators face and decisions they must make with little time or information. While her decision will not impact her job beyond taking some time away, it will not address the pressing issues her district faces and certainly is not in her job description. Yet it is important to the collegian’s friend. So what should the deputy do? 

If she has the discretionary time and desire to engage with the student, she should first gather as much information as she can. That involves talking with the student to get all the details about what was lifted and why it was lifted. She should also get a copy of the paper. 

If after this review the deputy concludes a passage was plagiarized, she should advise the student to report herself to her teacher and dean. The deputy also should coach her how to do so when she meets with faculty and administration. Importantly, she ought to coach the student how to write an apology that includes being assigned a failing grade for the assignment, a remediation plan involving workshop attendance or a class on research methods and an extended probationary period during which, at her own expense, she must submit all written work to TurnitIn or a similar service that scans for plagiarism. The student should acknowledge in writing that a second offense will be grounds for expulsion.

However, deputy superintendents do not always have that discretionary time. Dealing with distractions instead of focusing on priorities poses a problem for the deputy. Moreover, it indirectly poses problems and for the people and projects in which she is involved because they need her attention.

Helping a former student help a friend handle a messy situation is hardly mission critical so if time is not available, the deputy needs to direct his former student and friend to another resource – ideally a counselor or adviser at the university – and explain that he would not take down content from his website because it would neither be ethical to “aid and abet” plagiarism, it would actually enable and encourage plagiarism in the future, and it would be a disservice to others who come to his website to learn about evaluating new teachers.
Meira Levinson
The deputy superintendent should explain to the college student that her responsibility is to help her friend learn how to meet academic and ethical standards, including standards for academic integrity, not to help her friend avoid detection for plagiarism.

Even from a strictly consequentialist perspective, saving the student from detection in this particular assignment is not called for, as it will likely simply embolden the student to appropriate others’ work in the future.  Better that she get caught now, early in her academic career, than later in college, graduate school, or professional life.  Furthermore, automated plagiarism detection programs such as TurnItIn keep archived in addition to current websites in their databases. If the professor uses such a program, therefore, it is highly likely that the student’s malfeasance will be discovered whether or not the deputy superintendent has removed the original document from her website.

But the more important considerations are not about the likelihood and consequences of the student’s getting caught. Rather, they are about both college students’ understanding and development of academic integrity. The deputy superintendent’s former student needs to learn that her own integrity is at stake if she tries to alter the published record to protect her friend.

A more responsible approach is to help her friend own up to her mistake and negotiate a consequence (ideally short of expulsion) with the professor or the college administration. The friend needs to learn that plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft; just as she would presumably not burgle a house or engage in identity theft to solve a problem that is stressing her out, nor should she plagiarize others’ work to get a paper done in time.

Furthermore, both young women will likely learn that their college offers more support than they expected; many colleges take a developmental approach to a student’s first academic violation, especially when they are honest about their mistake, as they recognize that students are still learning and growing.
Maggie Lopez:
The deputy superintendent shouldn’t pull her work off her website to protect this student from in essence taking the deputy’s intellectual property. The deputy superintendent needs to let the collegian know that, although she appreciates her concern for her friend, now that she’s been made aware of the situation, she, the deputy, will have to contact the college regarding this allegation that’s been made about her friend. 

There are core values all leaders must adhere to and in this situation these values should not be ignored. When contacting the college, the deputy should share the information she’s received, request a copy of the alleged paper in question and request a call back when the college has investigated the allegation and addressed the situation with the student. 

Several aspects are troubling in this scenario. First is the fact the college student asked the deputy to condone the friend’s alleged inappropriate behavior. It is inappropriate for the deputy to look the other way to protect her friend’s bad judgement. It is also curious that the college student thought that getting the deputy to go along with her friend’s unethical behavior would be acceptable. Whatever career path the college student and her friend are pursuing, they seem to have forgotten about honesty and integrity. Who wants someone like this working for them? Whether or not the college student realizes it, her request to the deputy reflects negatively on her own judgement. 

Shelley Berman:

This presents a great opportunity for the deputy superintendent to provide advice on ethics to both the collegian and her friend. It is inappropriate to ask that the deputy superintendent remove a document from her web page in order protect the student’s friend from the consequences of plagiarism. To comply with this request would make the deputy superintendent complicit with—and, in effect, endorse—the friend’s plagiarism. This response would compromise both parties. Given that material remains on the internet somewhere in spite of its removal from the original website, it is possible that a search could reveal this plagiarism, even if the document is no longer on the website.

Instead of agreeing to this request, the deputy superintendent should recommend that the student advise her friend to acknowledge to her professor that she mistakenly didn’t provide credit for a section that was quoted from another document. Being proactive in admitting the mistake may reduce the consequences resulting from the plagiarism and would demonstrate both honesty and integrity. Everyone makes mistakes; it is best to admit and address them rather than try to cover them up with distortions that may come to light later. Even if there are consequences for the student, doing the right thing results in feeling good about one’s morals and one’s sense of self. If the deputy superintendent can guide her previous student in understanding the ethical dimensions of this situation, she can potentially help both students learn a life lesson from this experience.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.