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Score One for McLean High Students

Leo Brett and Ben Donovan, front, helped form the Committee for Students' Rights with, from left back, Jonathan Gayer, Jon Ende, Nicolas Kaylor, Daniel Freudberg and Brooks Powell.
Leo Brett and Ben Donovan, front, helped form the Committee for Students' Rights with, from left back, Jonathan Gayer, Jon Ende, Nicolas Kaylor, Daniel Freudberg and Brooks Powell. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

When students and administrators face off over academic policy, it's a safe bet which side will usually win. But a student uprising at McLean High School this fall over an anti-cheating initiative had an unusual outcome.

The students won. Sort of.

School officials had planned to require students in all grades to submit essays and other assignments to the for-profit service known as Turnitin, which polices papers for plagiarism. But after a group of seniors circulated a petition against the initiative, generating headlines, the administration eased the mandate a bit. It now will require only ninth- and 10th-grade English and social studies classes to use Turnitin. The requirement will be phased in for juniors and seniors in coming years.

Turnitin, based in Oakland, Calif., checks each student's work against a database of more than 22 million papers written by students around the world, as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals. Some McLean High students objected to having their essays added automatically to the massive database, calling it an infringement of intellectual property rights.

The service is used by more than 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries, including more than three-fourths of Fairfax high schools, as well as others in Loudoun, Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Fairfax school officials said they are confident Turnitin does not violate student rights. But they acknowledged that student complaints prompted them to go more slowly.

"This is not backing off," said Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier. "We're not saying we're not going to do this at McLean. We believe our legal status is adequate, and we expect that it's going to be used. It's being used all over the world."

Some students who spearheaded the protest said yesterday they aren't satisfied. Their group, known as the Committee for Students' Rights, plans to hand out fliers outlining their position at an upcoming Parent Teacher Student Association meeting. They have collected about 1,200 signatures on a petition against mandatory use of the service.

"It seems they pretty much changed the policy so they don't have to deal with the people who are protesting it," said Nicholas Kaylor, 17, a senior. "Until there is a clear opt-out option for everyone, we're not going to back down."

Chelsea Shalhoup, 15, a sophomore, said she is not happy Turnitin will be used when the second quarter starts next month.

"I feel like I have to prove I'm not cheating," she said. "I can't just be trusted to say I didn't cheat in the first place."

Educators agree that plagiarism is a growing problem because students can cut and paste material from a plethora of online sources. But the legality and effectiveness of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin is also being debated on some college campuses. For instance, the intellectual property caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, an organization of 6,000 college-level educators, is considering a draft position statement that questions whether such services "undermine students' authority over the uses of their own writing."

McLean Principal Paul Wardinski said the school will use the service as a teaching tool, not a "gotcha." Students will submit drafts to the service and will be able to make changes before turning in their work for a grade. But freshmen and sophomores who refuse to use the service will get a zero.

Wardinski said plagiarism is uncommon at McLean High. More often, he said, Turnitin helps students identify unintentional copying and teaches them to write proper citations and footnotes. Students shouldn't feel as though they are being labeled as possible cheaters, he said.

"I tell people, I never thought about blowing up a plane or hijacking a plane, but I go through the same security line as everyone else," Wardinski said. "If we wanted to catch kids because we thought they were cheating, we wouldn't use this approach. This is to help kids become better writers."


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