Schools have long fought an uphill battle against plagiarism, with endless source material for book reports and research papers just a few keyboard clicks away.
But in teaching students the importance of citing other people’s work, educators increasingly face another awkward challenge: a steady drumbeat of recent plagiarism incidents among adults, including two superintendents of Massachusetts school systems.
Such high-profile incidents, especially when they involve education leaders, undercut the message to students that plagiarism is unacceptable, specialists say.
“Modeling is one of the most significant ways in which values are conveyed,” said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, which conducts ethical surveys of high school students across the country. “What we see people do is more impactful than most other ways of trying to instill values.”
Earlier this month, Mansfield’s superintendent, Brenda Hodges, resigned amid accusations she plagiarized a graduation speech. On Thursday, Newton’s superintendent, David Fleishman, was docked a week’s salary after the Newton South High student newspaper raised similar complaints about two graduation speeches he delivered last month.
Last week also brought revelations that Senator John Walsh of Montana apparently plagiarized much of his final paper at the US Army War College, with large sections lifted from a number of sources. Even several pastors — including a Episcopal priest on Cape Cod last year — have been accused of borrowing parts of sermons without proper credit.
Graduation speeches, although routinely forgettable to those in attendance, are a regular source of embarrassment.
Last month, a Pennsylvania principal was suspended after lifting much of his graduation speech from the late author David Foster Wallace, and a high school principal in New York apologized after writing a yearbook message that was nearly identical to a California principal’s from a year earlier, down to the name of his school.
“It’s a fundamental lack of integrity,” Josephson said of the incidents of plagiarism. “We suffer from a lack of rigor on how important it is to credit people for their work.”
In a 2012 survey by Josephson’s ethics organization, 32 percent of high school students said they had copied an online document for an assignment.
The recent incidents of plagiarism by adults, meanwhile, show that the Internet can be a double-edged sword. It makes it easier to access other people’s work, but also easier to be found out.
And watchdogs abound, particularly for those in the public eye.
“Everybody’s going to be looking for a way to get you,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
At a meeting of superintendents following the Mansfield episode, Scott said he reminded the school leaders of the importance of avoiding any semblance of plagiarism in a digital era, where words are preserved and easily searched.
“As the superintendent of schools, you are setting a standard, and it has be high,” Scott said.
“You are open to public scrutiny, and the boundaries are very tight,” he said.
Fleishman, the Newton superintendent, said he made a mistake by failing to credit Governor Deval Patrick as the source of several passages in two speeches he delivered to Newton graduates last month. He said he had heard excerpts of Patrick’s speech on the radio and incorporated some of the themes into his own speech. The students cited five passages that shared strong similarities to Patrick’s speech.
Fleishman said he accepted responsibility for the incident.
“It was too close, and I think he understood that,” Scott said of Fleishman. “For whatever reason, he didn’t complete that circle.”
In Mansfield, Hodges resigned after complaints that she plagiarized remarks that were made by a Navy admiral at the University of Texas.
The rash of adults getting caught is all the more embarrassing since schools preach the importance of giving proper academic credit, and spell out the consequences in student handbooks.
Newton South High School says that cheating and plagiarism are “serious violations of the personal and academic standards of the school and are destructive to the learning process,” and warns that plagiarized assignments will receive a zero.
Quincy High School’s student handbook says, “There is no greater violation of academic integrity than stealing the ideas of others,” and lists a range of potential disciplinary actions.
“Our students must produce original work,” the handbook states.
But when school officials do not practice what they preach, that message gets undermined, specialists said.
Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist at Harvard University, said cheating has become so widespread that many students accept it as the norm. Plagiarism incidents involving school officials only reinforce that belief, he said.
More broadly, he said, many high-powered schools are governed by a culture that values success and accomplishments above all.
“Achievement is king,” he said.
Some say that despite the dire warnings, school officials have not gone far enough in disciplining students who copy material without credit.
Josephson credited schools for creating tough policies on academic honesty, and making those rules clear to students, but said many are lax about enforcement.
“Schools have drilled the message home, but they aren’t tough on it,” he said. “Young people know they can get away with it.’’
But others say students are aware of the consequences of passing others’ work off as their own, and that search engines and plagiarism checkers are often effective deterrents.
Jane Frantz, a teacher at Newton North High School, said she did not believe the superintendent’s actions would erode efforts to prevent plagiarism among students.
The focus on plagiarism begins in elementary school and is “covered thoroughly and consistently throughout the grades.”
“Teachers have a clear sense of responsibility that part of our job is to teach students about this issue, and do not and will not accept any excuses,” she said.