Plagiarism in high school


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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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4 Comments

Filed under Academic honesty, Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia

4 responses to “Plagiarism in high school

  1. >What’s the best way to punish teenage plagiarists on the one hand but really help them make better choices on the other?

    I wouldn’t use the word punish myself. If you cheat, you are not entitled to expect any favors. Zero on the assignment seems a given. If the policy is to say you’re not entitled to stay in the course, that seems reasonable to me. I agree with you that offering another course for those students is a terrible idea. Allowing them to face the natural consequences of their actions is not ‘punishment’.

    I have no idea how to help them make better choices. I hope that a personal connection with my students, and them seeing my terrible disappointment, will help. But maybe I’m dreaming…

  2. KC

    One kid claiming that cheating has been going on for years in these dual credit courses sounds like the typical blather kids always say — and they don’t really know if it’s true or not. Affluent kids always get caught in this nonsense. They feel consequences rarely apply to them — and it seems true in this case too.

  3. I hear that claptrap about how it’s been going on for years, too. The fact is that teaching high school is like a different world. I agree with you wholeheartedly in principle about what you said regarding the course to help the kids who plagiarized graduate. In practice, I just know from being a high school teacher that it isn’t that unusual to cut kids that age some slack. Not saying I agree with it, but administrators in almost any high school I can think of would not give the teachers a choice. My school doesn’t have Turnitin.com. I wish it did. I think it would really help. Our kids, if they plagiarize, tend to take things off the Internet, and I’ve been savvy enough to figure it out, but maybe not every time it happened. In fact, I’m sure I missed some instances. Our student handbook says that students receive a zero for the assignment and parents are informed of the incident. I photocopy the assignment twice, attach copies of the document from which the writing was taken, and highlight the parts that are the same on both the student paper and the document. I give one copy to the student, keep one on file, and give the third to administrators for the student’s file. I also inform my department chair. If a student plagiarizes a second time, it’s supposed to result in consequences up to and including expulsion, but that only happened once, and it was before I taught at my school. As far as I know, a student hasn’t been caught plagiarizing twice. To be fair, sometimes the student really internalizes it as a valuable learning experience. Of course, that depends on the student’s ability to accept responsibility, too, which is a trait that comes with maturity—literally, according to educational psychologists. Taking an educational psychology class last year was really enlightening for me, and I think about my students differently as a result. High schools need to do a better job educating students about plagiarism. I know I’m trying! I teach a mini-unit on it in my classes.

  4. I distinctly recall receiving ‘suggestions’ as a new English teacher to provide extra credit opportunities for students who plagiarized to make up credit, especially in my Honors classes. Of course, you couldn’t just offer it to those students, you had to offer it to everyone, and more often than not, 90% of the kids jumped on the chance to raise their grades. Result? Kids who plagiarized got make up points and I got to significantly increase my end-of-semester grading load.

    Things got significantly better once the school codified an academic integrity policy – still not perfect, but cut way down on these instances, at least in my classes (and of course, my being good at Google didn’t hurt, either).