THE BLOG
04/21/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2011

Did Colo. Principal Who Censored Student Newspaper Plagiarize?

On May 3, Washington, D.C. will host World Press Freedom Day, an event designed to draw attention to the state of press freedom in the United States and around the world. Last week, the Student Press Law Center (and dozens of other organizations) published an open letter to President Obama asking his administration to take a stand in support of student press freedom.

The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but the crucial point it makes: "[T]he United States will lack the full moral authority to advocate for world press freedom so long as our laws fail to effectively protect the majority of the Americans who gather and report news each day: Those working for student media."

Which brings to mind the last thing we talked about: Overland High School, in Aurora, Colorado, and Principal Leon Lundie. You've probably been expecting an update for some time now. I've had one, but I haven't really wanted to write it.

But here goes.

* * *

As you may recall from March, student journalists at Overland High School were told they couldn't publish a story about a fellow student who died because they had listed the cause of death incorrectly. When they proved they had the correct cause of death, Principal Lundie removed their adviser Laura Sudik and limited their publishing for the rest of the year.

Or maybe he didn't. On March 27, district spokeswoman Tustin Amole told the Denver Post that budget concerns were the reason students couldn't publish.

Or maybe they weren't. On March 28, Amole told the Aurora Sentinel that "changes in the larger media landscape" were the motivating factor for prospective change to the program. Amole compared the changes to reorganizations at CSU and CU-Boulder. (Last week, CU-Boulder's regents voted to close their journalism school, which certainly should make people nervous about the goal of Overland's "realignment.")

Or maybe it wasn't "changes in the larger media landscape," because evidently, nothing happened. On April 4, Amole explained to the Denver Post that the paper was never shut down, the adviser was never removed, and the entire affair was a misunderstanding.

The newspaper adviser, Laura Sudik, is now back to advising for the rest of the year, though the district denies she was ever removed. The paper is back to publishing, though the district denies it was ever shut down. And prior review has been lifted from the paper, meaning students can publish without running the stories by the principal.

All of which is fantastic, and none of which is quite the end of the story.

Because throughout this process, the district has telegraphed a desire to "realign" the program next year; refused to discuss whether that realignment will result in any form of actual publishing; and refused to discuss whether Laura Sudik, who has advised this newspaper for 14 years quite successfully, will be removed as part of the "realignment."

On April 5, I sent a letter to the district, offering expertise in journalism education to help analyze what would be the best outcome for students. I haven't heard back.

This leaves the students in a position where the future of their journalism program rests on the honesty and integrity of their principal, Mr. Leon Lundie.

Which puts me in an awkward position.

* * *

When the story about censorship at Overland High School started going national, it got the attention of Randy Swikle, Illinois JEA Director and a retired journalism teacher and adviser. He looked up the Overland High School web page and found Principal Leon Lundie's message to the community.

Something on the page rang a bell. "Creating an exemplary school is an individual and a collective endeavor. Overland's continued and sustained improvement will depend on the extent to which each of us fulfills our respective responsibilities."

This reminded Swikle of something he read at a high school where censorship had occurred two years earlier, Stevenson High School, in Illinois: "Creating an exemplary school is an individual and a collective endeavor. Stevenson's continued and sustained improvement will depend on the extent to which each of us fulfills our respective responsibilities as outlined in this document."

Hmm.

Google reveals other sources for other portions of the message. For example, the goals to "provide students with a common coherent curriculum;" "operate[s] on the premise that success for every student is dependent upon the people in the organization;" "[create/creating] a safe, caring environment and fostering a culture which promotes collaboration, enables staff and students to explore their full learning potentials, and result[s] in meaningful learning experience;" and "strive[s] to develop a strong commitment between the community and our school" all seem to be shared with the Cass Career Center in Harrisonville, Missouri.

Principal Lundie also expresses that, "It is a privilege to lead this professional learning community during a time of incredible change and tremendous possibilities," which is indeed slightly different than the principal's message from Koch Elementary School in South Dakota, where their principal feels "It is a privilege to lead this professional learning community during a time of tremendous possibilities."

One could reach the conclusion that this smacks of plagiarism. Indeed, Overland High School's site itself lists turnitin.com as a plagiarism resource. Another journalism teacher, elsewhere in the U.S., took Lundie's message and ran it through turnitin.com, where she said it came back "45 percent unoriginal." (I don't name her because I expect her district wouldn't like to know that she holds administrators to the same standards as students.)

Here's a copy of the turnitin.com report.

But of course, many messages are the same, and substantial similarity in one document does not a plagiarist make.

Elsewhere on the Overland High School site, the school has .PDF copies of the "Overland Courier Newsletter," a message from the high school to parents. Each message has a letter from the principal. (4/22 UPDATE: The district removed the newsletters from the site. Mirrors of the cited portions now used instead.)

Let's look at Principal Lundie's current message, April 2011. The message starts off:

With the month of March comes the end of winter, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, and, in the world of students and staff, the long-awaited Spring Break vacation. March also marks the beginning of the fourth quarter and a whirlwind of activity among students. March not only has the excitement of our final athletic season beginning, but also brings a flurry of music and other fine arts events throughout the month.

Compare the March 2010 newsletter from Victor J. Andrews High School in Illinois, which starts:

With the month of March comes the end of winter, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, and, in the world of students and staff, the long-awaited Spring Break vacation. March also marks the beginning of the fourth quarter and a whirlwind of activity among students. March not only has the excitement of our final athletic season beginning, but also brings a flurry of music and other fine arts events throughout the month.

The next paragraph of Lundie's April 2011 message is also pretty similar, with dates and locations for 2010 events in Illinois being changed to 2011 dates and locations in Colorado.

Then, skip to the third paragraph of the April 2011 message:

Specifically on the ACT, we believe all our students should receive a score of 20 on each of the four ACT subject tests (English, math, reading, and science). What these scores mean to our staff and your students is as follows: 1) It is an indication that students are academically prepared for post-secondary school and work, 2) It means that students interested in continuing at the collegiate level are not only prepared, but will be able to be admitted to most institutions in Colorado or begin at Aurora CC (or other community college) without remediation, 3) It is an indication that they are meeting our standards within our curriculum, 4) It is an indication that we, as a school, are successfully preparing all our students as we try to meet the challenges of the state accountability system.

Compare that to the April 2011 message from the very same Victor J. Andrews High School:

Specifically on the ACT, we believe all our students should receive a score of 20 on each of the four ACT subject tests (English, math, reading, and science) and a 5 on the Workkeys test (reading, math and science). What these scores mean to our staff and your students is as follows: 1) It is an indication that students are academically prepared for post-secondary school and work, 2) It means that students interested in continuing at the collegiate level are not only prepared, but will be able to be admitted to most institutions in Illinois or begin at Moraine Valley CC (or other community college) uninhibited, 3) It is an indication that they are meeting our standards within our curriculum, 4) It is an indication that we as a school are successfully preparing all our students as we try to meet the challenges of the state accountability system (NCLB).

Hmm, again.

The March message consists entirely of two lists of test-taking tips cribbed (without attribution) from Georgia College.

The February message borrows sentences and phrases from Stevenson once again.

The January message lifts a sentence from a report from the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology: "The success of the United States in the 21st century -- its wealth and welfare -- will depend on the ideas and skills of its population."

I looked at all eight newsletters posted. One contained the principal's message from the website, which has unattributed material described above. Of the seven, all seven I looked at appeared to have some amount of copied, unattributed source material, varying from rearranged sentences to cut-and-pasted passages.

* * *

In 2009, before Principal Lundie arrived, Overland High School updated their "Research Guide and Citation Style Manual." On page 11, it defines Plagiarism:

Plagiarism is taking someone else's ideas, words, or opinions and incorporating them in your paper without giving credit to that person or source. In essence, a person who plagiarizes is "stealing" from another person. Thus, when you are researching a topic and recording information, you must accurately document your sources whether you are quoting directly, paraphrasing, or summarizing.

None of the items Principal Lundie has taken material from cite any sources. None are presented as quotes or information from another source. Each one is signed: "Leon Lundie."

The district's discipline and conduct code states that students guilty of plagiarism could face penalties including expulsion.

* * *

If Cherry Creek School District is asking us to trust Principal Lundie to decide what should happen with the journalism program at Overland High School, that makes me nervous. (Far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone's honesty, but naturally, I've made copies of the documents, just in case they vanish from Overland's servers.) (4/22 UPDATE: In fact, they did. But you can view the cited pages here.)

And the problem here is bigger than Leon Lundie. The problem is us -- all of us, and how we've come to shrug and accept the word of high school administrators so uncritically that they think they can get away with anything, and for the most part, they're right.

The only accountability for most administrators is what's written in the press -- and the only press covering those administrators on a daily basis is the student press.

The SPLC's open letter sums up the problem:

The values conveyed by journalism -- attribution, verification, fairness, accountability -- are the values that every young person needs as a citizen of the online world. Because the professional news media cannot be everywhere, our society needs candid reports from "embedded" student journalists to tell us what is going on inside of our schools.

Yet far from embracing the educational benefits of journalism, school after school has done just the opposite.

Legislators shift more and more authority into the hands of administrators, even proposing they should police what your children do at home. They reduce accountability to nil under a theory of "student privacy" so you can never find out what happens. If there is any hope for accountability, fairness, or truth in public schools, it has to come from the protection of student journalists' civil rights. And that protection has to come from us.

4/22 UPDATE: A response is now on the high school's site. Principal Lundie says, in part, "At times, in preparing and writing my communications this year, I used statements from educational sources and did not reference those sources."

That strikes me as an intentional mischaracterization of what took place. I would posit that there is a difference between failing to attribute the origin of a statement, and wholesale cutting and pasting of other peoples' work with your signature attached.

Ultimately, this is the question: if a student turned in this work, with this level of copying, every month for a year--what would be the fate of that student? And why shouldn't we hold principals to that standard?