Summary of the Case
The case under review occurred in the city of Newton against a backdrop of economic decline, political disenchantment, and a widening racial divide. A Newton High School senior,Sheila Allison, is accused by her teacher of plagiarizing a book review. Mrs. Durnitz, the teacher, reported to the school principal that Sheila admitted to taking material from the web but claimed she did not know that doing so constituted plagiarism. The district’s policy states that students found guilty of plagiarism must receive a failing grade and repeat the course. Mrs. Durnitz feels that Sheila, having a copy of the student handbook in which plagiarism is discussed, should have known that what she did violated the policy. The teacher also believes that the policy, drafted by the teachers who teach honors classes and approved by the administration, must be followed to the letter despite any extenuating circumstances.
Sheila, a good student who is popular and athletic, received a congressional appointment to a national military academy. She is the first African American at Newton High School to receive such an honor. The town has publicized this fact widely throughout the community. Should Sheila receive a failing grade in her honors English class, she may lose this prestigious appointment. The ramifications for the district—should this occur—will most likely be both political and legal.
The superintendent and principal are stymied in their efforts to reach a compromise as Mrs. Durnitz refuses to change her position that the policy must be followed to the letter. She appealed to the teachers’ association for support when it appeared that the administration and board might not uphold her position. The local newspaper picked up the story and, in the article that was written, Sheila’s parents indicated their belief that their daughter did not knowingly commit plagiarism. They placed the burden on the school, commenting that the school should have done a better job of educating students about what this meant. With the scrutiny of the press as an added pressure, the superintendent asked the principal to make a quick determination that would avert the looming crisis.
In the case study under review, there are many contributing factors or causes that can be identified in relation to the problem. Kowalski (2012) found that “administrators often confuse causes and problems. Problems are products and causes are variables responsible for the product” (p. 6). The problem itself lies in the inadequacy of the district’s plagiarism policy. The policy is flawed in that it precludes school administrators from using their professional judgment to make determinations that are both ethical and fair. A zero tolerance policy does not allow extenuating circumstances to be taken into account, and thus is not the type of policy called for in regards to an issue that is as complicated and often ill defined as in the case of plagiarism.