Pennsylvania Superintendent Admits to Commencement Plagiarism

In a story that is becoming all-too-familiar, another school superintendent’s career may be in jeopardy following plagiarism in a commencement speech.

This story involves Matthew Strine, the current superintendent of the South MIddleton School District in Pennsylvania. During a graduation speech, he gave to Bolling Springs High School on June 10, he repeatedly took language from a 2011 address actress Amy Poehler gave at Harvard University. At no point did Strine cite the source or indicate that he was quoting Poehler.

The overlaps were originally highlighted in a YouTube video that compared the two speeches. After that video was discovered by district parents, the matter then went before the school board, which promised to take “appropriate action” in the matter.

That action may be underway now, as talks between attorneys for Strine and the school board are currently underway to discuss Strine’s future in the position. The discussions are focusing not just on the plagiarism, but on his annual performance evaluation.

Strine, for his part, has admitted to the plagiarism and said, “I am embarrassed for my lapse in judgement”. He also issued a statement apologizing to the class of 2021 saying, “I did not offer you all of my own words.”

However, Strine is far from alone in being in this position. Since May 2020, at least two superintendents resigned following allegations that they plagiarized in addresses to graduating students.

The first was Nate Huggins, who resigned from the Caldwell County School district in Kentucky after plagiarizing a letter sent to graduating seniors and Michael Muñoz, who resigned from the  Rochester Public School Board in Minnesota after a plagiarism scandal that included two of his graduation speeches.

The outcome of Strine’s case, on the other hand, is still very much up in the air. According to the school board, Strine has a right to due process under state law. As such, the meetings taking place are behind closed doors, and it is unknown what options are being looked at.

That said, there have been widespread calls for his resignation as a means of bringing the scandal to a quick end. They claim this will spare students, teachers and parents the uncertainty of a drawn-out battle over the position.

Whether he resigns or not, the story has already been an embarrassment for the school district and put an unneeded black mark on what should have been a day of celebration for graduating seniors.

An Uncommon Problem with Serious Consequences

As common as this problem may seem, it’s important to keep it in perspective. There are nearly 24,000 public secondary schools in the United States and, each year, only a handful have their graduation marred by a plagiarizing school official.

However, its rareness makes it newsworthy, and the newsworthy nature of it makes it an important test for the school district and for Strine himself.

Part of the school district’s job is to instill values of academic integrity in their students. However, if students see that plagiarism carries no consequences for those that run the district, it’s very difficult to make the case that it’s important for them to follow those rules.

Though Strine resigning his position would be the ideal outcome and the easiest for all involved, the school board needs to do what it can to show that it is taking this matter seriously and that it is working to resolve the matter as transparently as possible.

Though there are definitely limitations on that given the nature of Strine’s contract and employment law more broadly, the message to the public has to be clear: Plagiarism will not be tolerated.

Otherwise, that lesson is going to be very difficult to teach inside the classroom.

Bottom Line

As rare as this issue is, it is still frustrating that there is any problem where there clearly should be none. If any group of individuals should be trusted to write with integrity, it should be school officials.

Strine clearly broke that oath. In doing so he not only lifted words from another, but lied to his audience, including graduating seniors. While it was good of him to admit to the plagiarism and apologize for it, he above all people should know that plagiarism carries consequences.

That part, however, is up to the school board.

Here’s hoping that the school board sends the correct message to students, parents and teachers alike. If academic integrity is meant to be taken seriously at the district, then it’s highest officers need to be held just as accountable as its students.

To do otherwise teaches a lesson that I doubt many teachers want to pass on to their students.

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