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Jewish World Review March 1, 2002 / 17 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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What about the 90 who played it straight? -- THE lessons in a Kansas school about students stealing other people's work have been much discussed, and you would think that just about every side has been considered.

But the side that is most important -- the people who are most important -- is the side that has been discussed least.

The school is Piper High School, in Piper, Kan. A 26-year-old teacher named Christine Pelton assigned 118 sophomores in her biology classes to write essays about a variety of tree leaves.

The students had been told by Pelton -- in writing -- what plagiarism is, why it is unacceptable, and that any student caught turning in stolen material would receive no credit for the project. The project was going to count for 50 percent of each student's grade for the term.

When the students turned their papers in, Pelton noticed that many seemed to contain passages that read exactly the same. She discovered that 28 of the 118 students -- more than 20 percent of those enrolled in the biology classes -- had lifted material from the Internet and handed it in as if they had written it themselves.

She informed those 28 that they would receive no credit at all for the assignment -- just as was spelled out in the school's official written policy.

Because the assignment counted for half of each student's grade, those 28 were going to fail. Some of their parents complained; the principal and superintendent backed up the teacher, but the parents went to the school board, whose members overruled her. The school board ordered that the students who stole work be given partial credit for the assignment -- and that it should count for only 30 percent of the final grade, not 50 percent.

According to Pelton, the students who stole work celebrated when she was overruled, and told her they no longer had to listen to her. She resigned her teaching post.

Now . . . there has been much applause for Pelton, and condemnation of the school board. The teacher should not have to leave her job because she stood up for what is clearly right -- she is being punished, while the students who stole work are being rewarded.

There also has been some sympathy for the students who stole the work. Yes, they made a mistake, their defenders say -- but they are young, and will be applying to college soon enough, or applying for jobs, and they should be given another chance, and not have to be penalized with a failing grade.

Something is being left out here -- there are people who are not being talked about as much.

If 28 of the 118 stole work to pass it off as their own, what about the other 90 students who played it straight?

They could have taken the lazy and dishonest way out -- but they didn't. They could have pretended not to understand that plagiarism was wrong -- but instead they made the decision to spend long hours trying to do their own work the best they could.

What if the teacher had not discovered the 28 plagiarists? What if they had been awarded high grades for their stolen work -- and the students who did their own work had received lower grades than they did?

Those 90 students are the ones the school board in Piper, Kan., is insulting -- those 90 students are the ones toward whom the school board is showing disrespect, even contempt. Forget what should or shouldn't have happened to the 28 students who stole -- what about the 90 who had the integrity not to? Who is looking out for them?

Here's what the board of education should know: From now on, the name of that school will raise a red flag every time a college admissions officer, or the personnel director at a company, sees it. From now on, justly or unjustly, that school will be known as the one that rewards the theft of work.

Who will be hurt by that? The 90 students who didn't steal -- they're the ones who will unfairly suffer. They did nothing wrong -- yet no one considering them for colleges or jobs will know they did nothing wrong. Whoever it was that the school board was trying to help, the ones the board has hurt are precisely the ones who didn't deserve to be hurt. The board has spit upon the honest ones. They're the ones who are being forgotten in all of this, and who are owed an apology.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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