Plagiarism Case Bedevils Kansas School District and Parents

On the bulletin board outside the office of Piper High School principal Mike Adams, newspaper clippings herald the school's athletic success and student achievements.

But one story is conspicuously missing: The plagiarism scandal that has produced national headlines, infuriated parents, alienated teachers and divided the town.

That story may be absent from Adams' bulletin board, but it's not going away.

Ever since the school board overturned former teacher Christine Pelton's failing grade for 28 students, Piper students have been booed at competing schools, some teachers have made plans to quit and the administration is in upheaval.

"Our kids are getting labeled unfairly, and our parents are all being given the same stereotype," said English teacher Leona Sigwing. "It's gone beyond the plagiarism issue to something that's hurting students, and the community."

The controversy began last year when Pelton, a biology teacher, gave zeros to 28 students she accused of plagiarizing a botany project from the Internet.

Pelton said she suspected plagiarism because some reports contained identical material. The school board overruled her decision on the grades in December.

But the turmoil didn't end there.

Sigwing leads a special teacher's union committee formed to deal with the controversy and already one of her blue folders is thick with accounts of the slights suffered by students or parents:

At out-of-town basketball games last month, Piper students were greeted with a sign that read "plagiarists," and a few students wore T-shirts that called them cheaters, Sigwing said. Some complain crowds at games have chanted "Cheaters! Cheaters!"

A college-educated woman who graduated from Piper six years ago recounted that she was told by a potential employer at a job interview, "You didn't get any kind of education, did you?"

Pelton quit immediately after the board's decision. Adams and the school's assistant principal also said they plan to leave. Another teacher has quit, citing the dispute, and union officials say other teachers are waiting until a May 15 deadline to decide whether to stay or go.

In addition, one parent is trying to have the school board recalled. Some employees talk openly of how the superintendent and school board ought to resign.

The cheating questions prompted all 12 deans of Kansas State University to lecture school board members in a letter that said, "we will expect Piper students ... to buy into [the university's honor code] as part of our culture."

The letter seemed to be a "veiled threat that our kids would be scrutinized more closely than other kids because they came from Piper," said parent Dean Katerndahl.

The school board offered teachers an olive branch on Friday. Sigwing said board members wrote an open letter to teachers asking them to stay, "so that we can emerge as a better, stronger, more respected district."

Although board members still have not explained why they apparently ordered Pelton to change the grades, they said in their letter that they want to "prevent a repeat of this situation."

Sigwing said the letter is an indication that the board is willing to repair its relationship with teachers.

Board members also have to repair their relationship with law enforcement. Wyandotte County District Attorney Nick Tomasic has filed a civil petition against the board, alleging that it violated open meetings laws when it met in secret, apparently to force Pelton to change her grades. On Friday, Tomasic said he expects to negotiate a settlement with board members without filing criminal charges.

Katerndahl, whose son was in Pelton's biology class but was not accused of plagiarizing, has started a parents group that hopes to reconcile the differences between teachers, parents, and administrators.

"When you're being berated from the outside," said Katerndahl, "that just adds to the tension and the crisis feeling, which makes it harder to deal with this."