Cheating In The Heartland?

Cheating Scandal Divides Kansas Town

This is a story about a teacher who sacrificed her career when she took a moral stand against cheating; about the school board that overruled her; and about a town that was torn apart by that decision. Bill Lagattuta reports.

At the center of this storm is Christine Pelton, a teacher at Piper High School, in Piper, Kansas. She wouldn't let her students get away with cheating.

"I hold my kids to high expectations. And I'm not lowering my expectations for these kids," she says.

The saga started with an assignment known simply as the "Leaf Project." Students in Pelton's biology classes at Piper High were to collect samples from 20 different local trees, take measurements, give an oral presentation and write an extensive report.

The project was worth half the final biology grade.

Pelton was so adamant about honesty that she made her students - and their parents - sign a contract.

Rule number seven couldn't be clearer: "Cheating and plagiarism will result in the failure of the assignment. It is expected that all work turned in is completely their own."

What is plagiarism, to Pelton? "It is copying things word for word and using it as your own material."

But as students started handing in their reports, Pelton says she started seeing sentences and phrases that didn't sound like something her students would come up with on their own. She reads one example: "The box elder is intermediate in its intolerance."

"If I asked them 'What does that mean?' they'll go, 'I don't know.'" She says. She turned to Turnitin.com, a new Web service that compares student papers to worldwide databases. The verdict: 28 of her students - nearly one quarter of the entire sophomore class – had plagiarized.

Of the 28, only one would talk to 48 Hours, and his parents didn't want his name used. "I was kind of upset 'cause I was pretty sure I did't do it," he says, claiming he copied from the Internet but didn't plagiarize.

"I put that as two different sentences," he says. "So it's not like I copied it straight from the Web site. I changed it into two different sentences."

The students won the backing of their parents. "The problem in her classroom wasn't with the students, but with the teacher," says one parent.

"Plagiarism is black on this side, white on this side, with a whole lotta gray in the middle," said another parent.

The parents were so upset that they went to the school board and demanded the teacher be overruled. In an unprecedented move, the board agreed. It made the Leaf Project count for much less of the total grade. All the kids who failed the class for cheating, would now pass.

Pelton says her authority had been completely undermined, "taken away in a moment's decision, it was just wiped away." Her students now knew that her word was no longer law, as long as it could be reversed by the school board.

"I knew I couldn't teach," she says. "I left at noon and didn't come back. I resigned. "

Pelton, has become something of a national hero for standing by her principles, but at Piper High, the scandal has tarnished guilty and innocent alike.

"We don't like to say what school we go to, maybe. Or what class we're in," says student Laura Johnson, "because we're looked at as we're cheaters, but we're really not."

Johnson is just one of the majority of students who didn't cheat and actually earned their grades. She originally got 101 percent. But when the school board gave into pressure from parents and made the Leaf Project count for less, Laura's grade was lowered, while the grades of the students accused of plagiarism went up.

Mathew Whitmore, head of the English department at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., says that while the Internet makes it easier to cheat, it also makes it easier to get caught.

At his school, where intellectual theft is not tolerated, teachers routinely police their students' work using Turnitin.com, the anti-plagiarism site that Pelton used.

He tells of one student who lifted material from eight different Web sites for one assignment, and of another who turned in verse from Shakespeare as an original love poem.

Not only are students using the Internet to cut, paste and plagiarize, Whitmore says, they also are visiting cheating sites and downloading high-tech tools like so-called magic labels.

On that site, students find 20-ounce Coke bottle labels with blank space where the ingredients usually are listed. Students can type test answers in this space, paste the label on their bottles and keep the bottles on their desks during an exam.

"It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong. Because it's any way that you can get an advantage," says a 17-year-old high school senior who has an almost perfect grade-point average. He spoke only if his name was not used.

Ironically, he says cheating is most prevalent among the smartest students "because they have to get that four point whatever to get into your Ivy League school. I've always been told you have to go to the best college you can, you have to go to the Ivy League to succeed in life. If I can get the advantage by doing this, why not?"

Pelton is no longer teaching, a high price she has paid for her principles. But she is opening a day-care business in her home.

According to some of the parents of the students she failed, Pelton missed a "teachable moment."

"She's uncovered plagiarism," says a parent. "That's great, that's wonderful, let's give her an attaboy. Let's stop, put on a seminar, teach these kids exactly what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and then let them take their new knowledge, go back, and rework their projects and resubmit them. They missed their teachable moment; I truly believe that."

Pelton sees it differently.

"No, I don't think I missed a teachable moment. I think the Board of Education missed a teachable moment: Teaching that doing the right thing is the right thing to do."