Punishments for plagiarism usually are meted out without incident. But occasionally, things get ugly — for the accusers. Teachers and professors who impose harsh consequences on plagiarizing students sometimes face unpleasant consequences from their students, parents and unsupportive colleagues and administrators.
Law Professor John L. Hill, for example, was sued, verbally harassed and had his house vandalized after he filed plagiarism complaints against five law students at St. Thomas University in Miami, Fla., in 1995. But “the worst part” of the ordeal was the lack of support from colleagues and school officials, recalls Hill, who now teaches law at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
Hill says the five students incorporated materials from the Stanford Law Review and other publications into their own papers without attribution. One student copied “about 30 pages” of text — original footnotes and all. “It was pretty clear-cut,” Hill recalls. “It was verbatim plagiarism.”
Thus Hill was shocked when his own colleagues and the student-run honor committee did not support him. “A number of faculty just refused to accept that [plagiarism] was a significant problem,” Hill says. “One colleague insisted I was on a 'witch hunt.' And the president of the university ordered the dean to punt — to basically do nothing — because he didn't want to deal with any possible legal implications.”
When the students refused to admit wrongdoing, Hill referred them to the honor committee. Shortly thereafter, Hill says he started getting harassing phone calls, his house was egged and his front door was twice ripped from its hinges. During the trial proceedings, students booed and hissed at him. One of the defendants even tried to taint Hill as a plagiarist. “They tore apart everything I'd ever written in the hope of finding some plagiarism, which they didn't,” Hill says. “I was really portrayed as the bad guy.”
Ultimately, two of the cases were dismissed and a third student was acquitted. A fourth student pleaded guilty, and the final defendant was convicted on a split vote. For punishments, the two guilty students were ordered to write five-page papers on plagiarism.
Later, one of the convicted plagiarists sued Hill and the university for “loss of ability to obtain a job as an attorney.”
Some educators refrain from pursuing student plagiarizers because they fear either litigation or lack of support from administrators wishing to avoid negative publicity. But Hill says he'd do the same thing again. “It was an unpleasant experience, to say the least,” Hill says, “but I just wouldn't feel good about letting something like [plagiarism] ride.”
Christine Pelton, a biology teacher at Piper High School in Piper, Kan., had a similar experience in 2001 after assigning her 10th-graders to write scientific reports about leaves. The project represented half of the semester's grade, so students had to do well to pass the course. Pelton spelled that out in a contract she had her students and their parents sign. Section No. 7 warned, “Cheating and plagiarism will result in the failure of the assignment.”
After checking her students' reports with TurnItIn.com, a plagiarism-detection service, Pelton concluded that 28 of her 118 students — one-quarter of the entire sophomore class — had plagiarized from Internet sites, books or each other. Pelton flunked them all. Outraged parents demanded that Pelton change the grades, arguing she hadn't adequately explained what constitutes plagiarism. Pelton, noting the contract, adamantly denied the charge. “I made a big point of telling them [that plagiarism] would cause them to fail,” she said. “I gave them ample warning.”
When Pelton refused to change the grades, the parents went to the school board. On Dec. 11, 2001, the board and District Superintendent Michael Rooney decreed that the project would count for only 30 percent of the students' semester grades. All the students who would have failed due to plagiarism would now pass.
Rooney announced the policy change the following morning. Pelton was furious that her authority had been stripped away. “I went to my class and tried to teach the kids, but they were whooping and hollering and saying, 'We don't have to listen to you anymore,' ” she said.
Pelton immediately resigned, telling Rooney that she couldn't work in a district that didn't support her. “I knew I couldn't teach,” she later recalled. “I left at noon and didn't come back.”
At least nine other Piper teachers quit in protest. The town's residents, many of whom had supported Pelton throughout the ordeal, ousted one school board member in a special recall election. Another board member resigned and a third did not seek re-election. Rooney also resigned under pressure last year.
Pelton, who opened a home day-care center after the plagiarism imbroglio, was honored last year with a certificate of appreciation from Kansas lawmakers. “I knew what I did that day would have an impact on my future,” she said of her decision to resign. “Students not only need the building blocks of learning, but [also] morals and values.”