Archive for Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Piper board makes deal with district attorney

April 3, 2002

Piper School Board members apologized Tuesday for their handling of 28 students who were given failing grades for plagiarizing a classroom assignment and they admitted to "a technical and unintentional violation" of the state's open meetings law.

However, board members stuck by their Dec. 11 action to overturn the teacher's decision and change the students' failing grades so they could pass the class.

In a 6-0 vote during a special meeting at Piper High School, the board publicly reaffirmed its decision to change the students' grades. Board member Leigh Vader abstained from the vote.

Piper School Board president Chris McCord, who read a statement at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, apologized to Piper students for what they have had to deal with during the past few months.

"I'm truly, truly sorry for the remarks you have had to endure at the hands of others," McCord said, asking students to remember the remarks weren't actually directed toward them, but meant instead for board members.

In December, Piper High School teacher Christine Pelton gave 28 sophomore students failing grades for plagiarizing a botany assignment.

The assignment, which was worth 50 percent of the students' grades, required 118 students to collect 20 to 30 leaves and to write a two-paragraph summary about each leaf.

Pelton suspected some of the students of plagiarism when several reports turned in by students had the same material, including word-for-word paragraphs, Pelton had said.

After taking complaints from three parents, who disagreed with Pelton's decision to give failing grades to their children, the Piper School Board agreed during an executive session to overturn the grades and to force Pelton to decrease the assignment's value.

Pelton resigned in protest of the decision and other Piper teachers have said they will do the same at the end of the school year.

Vader said the 28 sophomore students involved in the plagiarism incident never intended create the national spectacle they did.

"They made a mistake, just like I've made mistakes in my life, my husband's made mistakes in his life and my kids have made mistakes in their lives," Vader said.

Vader, a former teacher, said she sympathizes with Pelton's situation.

"In her position, I would have done the same thing," Vader said. "I would have walked just like she did."

While most board members apologized for the events that led to Pelton's resignation, board member James Swanson said he did not believe the school district was at fault for all that happened involving the alleged plagiarism incident.

"I would like to personally apologize to the students of the Piper School District for the torment they've gone through at the hands of the local and national press," Swanson said.

Later, Swanson reiterated his belief that the media was to blame for much of what occurred as a result of the plagiarism scandal?

"My only regret is the way the media has handled this and the people that continue to feed the media through false information," he said.

A civil complaint against all seven members of the Piper School Board will be dismissed as part of a settlement agreement reached between the board and Wyandotte County District Attorney Nick Tomasic.

As part of the settlement agreement, board members admitted to making "a technical and unintentional violation" of the Kansas Open Meetings Act by recessing to a close-door session Dec. 11 without making a sufficient statement as to their reasons for going into the session.

The admission came during the meeting Tuesday.

In return for their admission, Tomasic agreed to dismiss the civil petition he filed Feb. 28 against the board members.

Tomasic said Tuesday night he would likely file a motion to dismiss the complaint as early as Wednesday, or as soon as the necessary paperwork was completed.

Board members also must pay a civil penalty of $250 each.

The school board will pay approximately $1,200 for court costs related to the complaint.

In addition, school Superintendent Michael Rooney must appoint a special committee to work with students, parents, teachers and administrators to develop an "age-appropriate plagiarism policy."

The committee's proposal would eventually have to be presented to the school board during an open meeting to provide all interested people an opportunity to express their views.

Tomasic said he does not believe that board members realized they were violating the law during the Dec. 11 meeting.

"I think they just made an honest mistake," he said.

Still, the civil complaint filed against the board members should serve as a warning to other school boards and city governments throughout Wyandotte County that provisions established in the Kansas Open Meetings Act will be enforced, Tomasic said.

"The law is there for a purpose and that's so the people know what's happening," Tomasic said.

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