A Lesson About Copycats

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Plagiarism is a serious crime in journalism; it can be embarrassing and career-ending. But what if the plagiarists are children who won the KidsPost poetry contest, children who said the work was their own?

The winning poems were published Tuesday. Two of them, submitted by children as original, were not original. Seventeen readers noticed, including 10-year-old Hannah Engle of Alexandria, who wrote to me to name the original authors and suggested: "You should check the winners to make sure they did not do such a thing."

KidsPost editors went to extraordinary lengths this year to check because of plagiarism last year. The contest started four years ago, is held during National Poetry Month and is widely used by teachers. This year's contest drew about 1,150 entries.

KidsPost editor Marylou Tousignant announced the contest on March 26 and included a big yellow warning box headlined "Original Work Only." That yellow box said (boldface words included): "Your poem must be your own work , not something you copied or read somewhere or heard someone say. It must come from inside your head! Taking someone else's words or thoughts and offering them as your own is called plagiarism . . . Teachers (and newspaper editors) aren't happy if you do that."

Then Tousignant called each of the winners and their parents and quizzed them separately about whether the entry was original and point-blank asked if it had been copied. She received assurances in all cases that the work was the children's own. As an added precaution, the KidsPost staff ran lines of the winning poems through Google.

When Hannah read "Horrible, Just Horrible," ostensibly by a 10-year-old Stafford girl, she thought she had read it before. She told her fifth-grade teacher, Sharon Riley, who took the students to the library at Fairfax's Waynewood Elementary School, where they found the poem, "One Out of Sixteen," by Shel Silverstein. Searching the Internet, Riley and students found that a winning poem, called "Eraser," by a 6-year-old Williamsburg girl, was heavily dependent on "The Eraser Poem" by Louis Phillips.

Tousignant called the girls and their parents. She and the 6-year-old's mother believe the girl may have misunderstood because she copied the visual gimmick -- words and letters are erased one by one -- but she used slightly different words. The 10-year-old simply lied and finally admitted it to Tousignant. Her father apologized and asked me to tell his daughter just how serious plagiarism is.

Tousignant said she is "embarrassed and saddened, although I am not sure what else we could have done." A correction appeared Friday. Tousignant suggested that next year Hannah Engle and her class ought to verify the winners' originality.

Another winning entry, from a 12-year-old from Fairfax, disturbed some readers because it was so dark. Called "I Am the Daughter of a Father Who Hates," the poem said: "I wonder why my Father yells and hits" and "I think of the horrible things he has done."

Tousignant talked to the girl's mother several times. The daughter had witnessed some trying times before her parents divorced, but her mother assured Tousignant that the girl is safe and was writing about her past. Tousignant wisely decided not to use the girl's last name.

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