Blog: The Educated Reporter

How a St. Louis Story Became a Toronto Education Scandal

Aisha Sultan, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s parenting columnist, was searching the Nexis digital archive of newspaper articles last week when a troubling pairing caught her eye – her name, and the word “plagiarism.”

Clicking on the link to the Toronto Star, Sultan learned she unwittingly had played a not-so-minor role in a major scandal for Canada’s largest school district. And it had all unfolded five months earlier, nearly 800 miles away.

Chris Spence, the director of Toronto’s public school system – the Canadian equivalent of an American superintendent –  resigned in disgrace in January after it was determined his opinion piece published by the Star contained material plagiarized from several sources, including the New York Times. Numerous additional examples of Spence’s plagiarism were subsequently uncovered by local media. Among them: He took several passages verbatim from an emotionally charged column in which Sultan described telling her children about the Sandy Hook school shooting. In Spence’s version, he replaced Sultan’s son with his own.

From Sultan’s Dec. 14 online column, posted just hours after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.:

… When I looked at my 7-year-old son, I put on my calmest face.
“A terrible and sad thing happened today,” I said. “Someone shot a gun at a school.”
He looked at me for a minute, trying to understand what I had said.
“Was anyone killed?”
“Yes, some people were killed. It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.”
Then I hugged him. 

From Spence’s version published two days later:

… When I looked at my 10-year-old son, Jacob, I put on my calmest face.
“A terrible and sad thing happened today,” I said. “Someone shot a gun at a school.”
He looked at me for a minute, trying to understand what I had said.
“One of your schools, Dad? Was anyone killed?”
“No, not one of ours but, yes, some people were killed. It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.”
Then I hugged him.

Spence’s version goes on to lift several subsequent paragraphs directly from Sultan’s column.

Having your work appropriated without proper attribution isn’t an unusual experience for a professional writer. But the plagiarism of Sultan’s column crossed a different line altogether.

“This was a personal narrative story of mine about my own family,” Sultan said. “I read those sentences I had written but with some other kid’s name put into it, and I thought ‘What are you doing leading a school district?’”

In a Jan. 25 note to readers, Star public editor Kathy English addressed the Spence controversy and a separate incident involving insufficient sourcing in stories by one of the paper’s reporters. She wrote that “we will be editing and appending notes to the online and archive versions of these articles to tell readers these stories included improper attribution.” However, as of Thursday Spence’s opinion pieces on  extracurricular sports and the Newtown shooting were still available on the newspaper’s website with no explanation that the content contains plagiarism. I tried unsuccessfully, by telephone and email, to reach both English (who was away from the office this week) and Star editor Michael Cooke for comment.

The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education and training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.,  recommends newspapers “place editor’s notes atop any online content that contained plagiarized or fabricated material. If original, offending content must be removed, place the editor’s note at the same URL where the work previously appeared.”

Let’s be clear here: Spence certainly had to know what he was doing was wrong. He earned $272,000 annually to run the Toronto District School Board, which serves about 250,000 students. As in most school systems, Toronto’s students are expected to follow a code of conduct, and plagiarism is clearly defined under the board’s rules on academic honesty. Additionally, some of the board’s high schools already require students to run their essays through plagiarism detection software before turning them in to their teachers, according to the Star’s reporting.

Most examples of online plagiarism fall into two categories: inexperienced bloggers who don’t know the rules of attribution or automated sites that are reposting content without permission, said Jonathan Bailey, a consultant who created the website Plagiarism Today to track incidents. The scale of Spence’s plagiarism (which appears to stretch back years), combined with his high-profile position, “is a rare case,” Bailey said.

Bailey wasn’t surprised that Sultan hadn’t been contacted by the Canadian newspapers reporting the Spence scandal. The media’s top priority was to gather enough evidence to prove a pattern, rather than right the wrongs Spence committed, Bailey said. He also wasn’t surprised that Spence’s public apology had extended to the newspaper that had printed his op-eds and the school system that had employed him – but not to the writers whose work was stolen. Plagiarists often default to what Bailey called the “non-apology apology” – at best appearing embarrassed for being careless without acknowledging any intentional wrongdoing.

“Serial plagiarists rarely offer apologies,” Bailey said. “It might say something about the psyche of a serial plagiarist that, even when caught, they focus solely on their misdeeds, their lies, their coworkers and their friends rather than the more faceless people they pulled from.”

(I tried without success to reach Spence. If he’s reading this, Sultan would like him to know she would still appreciate an apology. She’s easy to find.)

Kelly McBride, senior faculty at the  Poynter Institute and an expert on media ethics, said the writers whose work was misappropriated by Spence, along with the outlets that first published their work, are indeed owed an apology.

And perhaps Sultan should be at the top of that list. Spence’s misuse of Sultan’s column constituted “a bigger lie” than some of the other examples of his plagiarism, McBride said.

“It’s a different moral transgression than if I take some facts and figures from somewhere, and I say ‘I read a report,’ when really someone else did the work,” McBride told me. “On an individual, moral level, saying `This is my experience,’ when in fact it was someone else’s experience – that’s personally egregious.”

Once she got over the initial shock of finding out about the Spence scandal, Sultan said another thought had quickly come to mind: How could all of this have unfolded without her ever hearing about it?

“It’s not like the story ran in an obscure blog and no one saw,” Sultan told me. “Spence was in a high-profile position, this was big news all over Canada.”

Canadian reporters Megan O’Toole and Chris Selley of the National Post were the first to report that Spence’s trail of serial plagiarism included Sultan’s column. I asked O’Toole if anyone had considered contacting Sultan for comment. O’Toole said she wasn’t sure what the chain of events had been back in January, but the normal process probably would have been to reach out to the author whose work was plagiarized.

However, the evidence against Spence was “piling up” at such a furious pace that “it wouldn’t have been in the public interest to hold off on the story” in order to contact all of the original writers, O’Toole said. Of all of the examples, his lifting of Sultan’s material stood out as “probably the one that disturbed us the most,” she said.

I spoke with Louise Brown, a veteran education reporter for the Star who covered the Spence scandal in depth, and she was taken aback when I informed her that Sultan hadn’t known what had transpired earlier this year. Brown told me that in hindsight she regrets not reaching out to Sultan. It would have been the right thing to do, Brown said – and it would have made for a better story.

She also agreed that Spence’s pilfering of Sultan’s work was in a different league: “This wasn’t gathering data or forgetting to footnote … to realize he had actually taken this moving story and portrayed it as his own really made us stop and catch our breaths.”

With Spence’s resignation Toronto’s schools lost a popular and charismatic leader, who by many accounts was turning in a solid performance. Might his downfall serve as a cautionary tale or make someone think twice before considering similar shortcuts? What will his former students take away from this? Sultan has already used the incident as a life lesson for her children. She said she talked to them “about what it means to use another person’s work without crediting them and told them about the real life consequences in this case … they were both upset to be on the receiving end of this, so hopefully they’ll remember that feeling and be extra careful in their own work.”

At the same time Sultan, whose column will begin national syndication in the fall, realizes there isn’t much more she can do to protect her professional product in a digital world.

“We put our names on what we write, and we just have to trust,” Sultan said. “We have to depend on the honesty of others.”