February 14, 2002

School Cheating Scandal Tests a Town's Values


PIPER, Kan., Feb. 13 The Piper school board normally meets in a cozy conference room at district headquarters, but on Tuesday, folding chairs filled the purple-and-white elementary school gym to accommodate the overflow crowd.

More than 100 parents, students and teachers skipped the basketball game at the high school next door to talk about the plagiarism scandal that has riven this tight-knit community 20 miles west of downtown Kansas City, Kan., and become talk-show fodder as far away as Guam as a symbol of the decline in American values.

It began in December with a teacher's finding that 28 of 118 Piper High sophomores had stolen sections of their botany project off the Internet. The students received zeroes and faced failing the semester. But after parents complained to the school board, the teacher, Christine Pelton, was ordered to raise the grades, prompting her resignation. Now, the community is angrily pointing fingers as they debate right and wrong, crimes and consequences, citizenship and democracy.

At Tuesday's meeting, Kay Miesner, who graduated from Piper High School in 1962 28 years after her father, 23 years before her son told the board members who overruled Mrs. Pelton, "I know each and every one of you, I think you're all good people." But, she said, "I think you made a mistake."

Someone yelled, "Yup," and the audience erupted. But Chris McCord, the board president, clamped the emotion, saying, "We'll have none of that."

Such tension is unusual here in Piper, a blue-collar bedroom community, in part because of young families drawn by the small school district.

Several teachers said that nearly half the high school's 31-member faculty plus its brand new principal planned to resign at year's end over the case, while parents fretted that the school's dwindling reputation might result in a decline in property values and disappearance of scholarship opportunities.

Mrs. Pelton, meanwhile, has become a kind of folk hero, with dozens of calls a day offering support and jobs.

"It's not just biology, you're teaching them a lot more than that," Mrs. Pelton, 27, who had planned to resign this spring anyhow to start a home- based day care center, said between television appearances the other day. "You're teaching them to be honest people, to have integrity, to listen, to be good citizens.

"We got rules, and they got to follow the rules," she added. "I'm not expecting more than what would be expected of them either at home or down the road."

Students, plagiarizers and non-plagiarizers alike, have already begun to feel the backlash.

A sign posted in a nearby high school read, "If you want your grade changed, go to Piper." The proctor at a college entrance exam last weekend warned a girl wearing a Piper sweatshirt not to cheat. A company in Florida faxed the school asking for a list of students so it would know whom never to hire. At Tuesday's board meeting, as five television news crews rolled tape, a woman worried that the community has been "stamped with a large purple P on their foreheads for plagiarism."

The sophomore leaf project, an elaborate exercise in which students spend months collecting leaves and researching their origins, dates back a decade.

Mrs. Pelton, who came to Piper High in the fall of 2000 after a five- year program at the University of Kansas, sent an outline of the assignment home on the first day of school, along with her classroom rules (No. 7: "Cheating and plagiarism will result in failure of the assignment and parent notification. It is expected that all work turned in by the student is completely their own."), which students and parents had to sign.

Mrs. Pelton said she began to worry in October, when students' oral presentations, filled with big, unfamiliar words, sounded strangely similar. As she flipped through their projects a month later, she found the writing far more sophisticated than previous assignments. A plagiarism- detection Web site, turnitin.com, showed one in four were laced with lifted material.

The principal, Michael Adams, who declined to be interviewed, backed Mrs. Pelton's decision to give students zeroes, as did the superintendent. But after parents protested at the Dec. 11 school board meeting, the superintendent, Dr. Michael O. Rooney, sent a memorandum home saying he had "reluctantly" directed Mrs. Pelton to deduct just 600 of 1,500 points from the plagiarizers' projects, and to cut its value in the overall grade from 50 percent to 30 percent.

Mrs. Pelton said a student told her, "We won."

Though teachers here say they begin discussing source citation in the fourth grade, some parents, of students with zeroes and those with A pluses, insist the students did not realize what they were doing was wrong (some say they thought the admonition was against copying from previous students' papers, not taking simple descriptions from research material). Failing a whole semester, they say, is too harsh.

"If your boss said to you, `You were late one day this month so we're not going to pay you for the whole month,' is that fair?" asked Mary Myer, whose son, Mitchell, was not accused of cheating.

"Plagiarism is not a cut-and-dried issue," she added. "Somebody who gets in their car and hurts someone, we punish them differently than someone who goes out and shoots someone. Intent matters."

It is just the latest plagiarism revelation afflicting American high schools and colleges, aggravated by an Internet age in which research papers as well as programs to detect cheating can be downloaded by the dollar. A Rutgers University professor's survey of 4,471 high school students last year found that more than half had stolen sentences and paragraphs from Web sites, 15 percent handed in papers completely copied from the Internet, and 74 percent had cheated on a test.

On talk shows and the Internet, Piper's problems have been linked to recent admissions by the popular historian Stephen Ambrose that he failed to properly attribute passages; the resignation of George O'Leary, Notre Dame's football coach, after revelations that he falsified his résumé; even alleged lying by executives at Enron.

Piper, a farming community founded in 1888 and annexed by the city of Kansas City, Kan., in 1992, is defined by the four-school district of 1,300 students. Its headquarters doubles as the post office in an enclave without town hall or tavern; even empty-nesters wear Piper purple to Pirates athletic events.

Many parents have expressed sympathy for the 75 percent of students who did not cheat, some of whom received lower semester grades in biology when the project they had slaved over suddenly counted less than they had anticipated. Some parents have even sent homemade cookies and nut bread to school in quiet solidarity with teachers.

"You can stand up for your kids when it's right, but when it's wrong, you can't bail your child out," said Diane Smith, who has a son in the freshman class and a daughter in middle school. "I don't think the board should have that much power; they really outstepped their boundaries."

Teachers, ever-protective of the sanctity of their grade books, say the board has robbed their independence and professionalism. Instead of a lesson about the importance of honesty and originality, they say, students learned that complaining to higher powers mitigates punishment.

"If I make a decision, I don't know if it's going to be backed up," said Angel Carney, a business teacher who submitted her resignation this week. "I had a disagreement with a parent the other day; right away she wanted to go over my head."

Even if no one ended up failing, students say they are paying the price. "Whatever you do will always come back to you," Amy Kolich, an 18-year-old senior, said when asked what she had learned from the situation. "In a way, to them, it didn't, but it came back to our school."

Piper High's handbook does not mention plagiarism specifically, but says the penalty for cheating, even a first offense, is no credit on the assignment. Administrators are now setting up a committee to handle conflicts over grades and collecting plagiarism policies from other schools.

Matthew Mosier, 16, spent hours on his botany project, gathering leaves from neighbors' farms, looking them up on the Web. His grandmother, a quilter, covered his three- ring binder in leaf fabric and embroidered his name on the cover. He bought fancy leaf paper at the Hobby Lobby to print out his reports.

Matt ended up with a D, the extra-credit for his artistic flourishes washed out by the sentences Mrs. Pelton said he copied.

"Am I saying my son's perfect? No and hell no," said Kim Mosier, Matthew's mom, who was not among those who complained to the board but was pleased by the result. "We sat down with him and said, `Did you plagiarize?' He said, `No, Mom, I didn't.' I have to support him until they can prove him different.

"We hire that board, those teachers, that school, that principal they work for us," she added. "Everybody has that opportunity that they should be questioned on a decision that they make."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times