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Plagiarism in high school

June 4, 2010, 8:54 am

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About two dozen seniors at Hamilton Southeastern High School in the affluent northern suburbs of Indianapolis have been caught plagiarizing in a dual-enrollment college course, thanks to turnitin.com. Full story with video here, and there’s an official statement from the HSE superintendent on this issue here (.DOC, 20KB).

This would be an ordinary, though disappointing, story about students getting caught cheating if it weren’t for some head-scratchers here. First, this bit from the superintendent’s statement:

We took immediate action because the end of the school year was rapidly approaching. Several students were in danger of not graduating on time. We found a teacher who was willing to step up and administer a complete but highly accelerated online version of a class that would replace the credit that was lost due to cheating. Each student who wishes to graduate on time and participate in commencement now has the opportunity to do so. [my emphasis]

It’s troublesome that the superintendent chooses to describe the teacher as “stepping up” to deliver an online makeup course. “Stepping up” is what you call it when there’s something that needs to be done and somebody agrees to get it done. But it seems to me that the school system here owes these students absolutely nothing. HSE, in conjunction with Indiana University, offered a legitimate college course with clearly-defined parameters for academic performance, and HSE did a particularly thorough job describing the boundaries of academic honesty. The students chose to violate that contract and cheat. The school system is therefore not obliged to offer an online makeup course, or indeed to offer anything to these students at all. To imply that HSE does owe the students a path to graduate on time is like saying that if someone gets caught shoplifting, the grocery store owes it to the shoplifter to find a way to help him buy his groceries.

Also, what is the teacher who “stepped up” being paid to run this online course? If the teacher is being paid from public school coffers for this, and if I lived in Hamilton County, I would have a big problem with my tax money being spent to offer online courses to students guilty of cheating just so they can graduate on time — especially when public school money is historically scarce right now. Let the students find their own way to graduate. It’s not like they were barred from graduating on time, fair and square, in the first place. Let the residents’ school money go to help the students who are working hard and doing things the right way instead. (If the teacher’s doing it for free, then other questions arise.) This is the way we’d do it in college, and this is a college course, right?

HSE might think it’s doing right by the students in “allowing each student to work his or her way back toward the proper path so they can graduate on time, continue their educations [sic] and understand the benefits of making good choices” (quote from the superintendent’s statement). But isn’t this really illustrating the benefits of making bad choices — as in, go ahead and cheat, because the school will find a way to let you graduate on time anyway? Other than potentially not getting into IU, what consequences are these students having to face, exactly, other than sacrificing a bit of their summer to retake a course at taxpayer expense? (By the way, if this course is dual-credit, whose rules about academic dishonesty are supposed to be followed? IU’s appear to be more strict that Hamilton Southeastern’s.)

This bit from a fellow student is equally disturbing:

“If you’re going to do something dishonorable, there’s going to be consequences for it,” said [a fellow student, not part of the plagiarizing group]. But she says she sympathizes with her friends who were caught cheating. She claims students have been cheating for years, but this is the first year teachers have used the software system that gives them the ability to easily catch cheaters. She believes this incident likely serves as a lesson for students for years to come.

So, it’s about the consequences, not so much the act itself. The sympathy didn’t show up until turnitin.com caught them. Until we stop “sympathizing” with plagiarists and start treating plagiarism on the same level as lying and stealing — which it is both — this problem isn’t going to go away.

What’s your take on all this? Is HSE acting honorably or just enabling future plagiarism? What’s the best way to punish teenage plagiarists on the one hand but really help them make better choices on the other?

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