Over the past 18 months, there has been a major rash of school superintendents being caught committing plagiarism.
It started in February 2020 when the now-former Katy Independent School District Lance Hindt was accused of having plagiarized his dissertation. After that, in January 2021, now-former Rochester Public School District superintendent Michael Muñoz faced multiple allegations of plagiarism related to his job. Then, earlier this month, South Middleton School District superintendent Matthew Strine was accused of plagiarizing a commencement speech. He just reached a termination agreement with the school board last week.
However, in the small town of Gilbert, IA, a superintendent may have just broken a new inglorious record: The fastest to commit plagiarism.
The story involves Dr. Christine Trujillo, who began her new role as superintendent of the Gilbert Community School District on July 1, 2021. On August 10 of the same year, she sent out a back to school letter to parents that contained content plagiarized from a similar letter sent in 2017 by the superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District in New York.
What makes the story even more unusual is the way that Trujillo was caught. Parents in the Gilbert community became suspicious when a section of the letter read, “It is an exciting time for the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, and I’m looking forward to the year ahead. Please accept my best wishes for a happy and healthy summer.”
Hours later, those lines were deleted from the online version of the letter, though other plagiarized phrases remained.
Trujillo, for her part, has acknowledged the plagiarism and sent out a letter on Monday apologizing for it. In her apology, she said she began researching other superintendents’ letters because she felt they expressed her thoughts and feelings.
She added, “My intention was to go back and rework the words to make them my own. Unfortunately, in my haste to get this letter out with the current COVID mitigation strategies, I failed to perform this important edit.”
However, it doesn’t appear that Trujillo has much to fear, when asked by the Associated Press, the district’s president said, “The board has full support of Dr. Trujillo.”
But should she? What message does this send to the students in the district? To answer that, we have to look at the cases that came before.
The Worst Possible Message
When we look at the other three cases of plagiarizing superintendents, there’s one common pattern: None of them hold that position any longer. Lance Hindt, Michael Muñoz and Matthew Strine have all been removed from their positions. Whether they resigned or were terminated, all are either gone or on their way out as of this writing.
However, if the comments to the Associated Press are any indication, it appears that the Gilbert Community School District isn’t interested in even investigating the allegations.
Everything about this plagiarism makes it about as serious and concerning as it can be. This isn’t a superintendent with a lengthy positive history that made a mistake. This was one of her very first public-facing tasks in the position, and she not only plagiarized, but did so in an incredibly sloppy way.
To make matters worse, her explanation for the plagiarism is horrible. While I am certainly sympathetic to her struggles to find the right words, her approach of copying and pasting the works with the intention to edit them later is not how one is supposed to write, especially in academia. That is not how paraphrasing works, and it is a terrible lesson for students in the district.
In short, this story sends a abhorrent message to students in the district. It both teaches very poor writing habits and that there are no consequences for clear and sloppy plagiarism. For the school district to brush this aside so quickly, it leaves an ugly stain on the entire district.
This isn’t to imply that Trujillo needs to be fired. But the case does need to be taken seriously. It needs to be investigated, and an appropriate response is necessary. Brushing it aside immediately serves no one.
While I recognize that this is a relatively small district (About 1,400 students) facing unprecedented challenges in difficult times, it is still doing its students a disservice by ignoring this issue. This is worth the time and resources to investigate.
Here’s hoping that they make the decision to do so.
Whenever a situation like this comes up, I ask a simple question: What would happen if it were a student who had been caught doing this?
The answer, I hope, is that it would be investigated and some kind of corrective action would be taken. Whether it is remedial education, or, if needed, punishment. I would hope that it wouldn’t simply be ignored.
As a superintendent, Trujillo is the district’s leader, and she sets an example for all the students to follow. However, the example that she and the district are setting here is that plagiarism is not a big deal and that it is largely tolerated as long as one apologizes and offers excuses.
After all, why should any student take plagiarism seriously if their superintendent is not held accountable? Furthermore, why should students be held to a higher standard than the district’s leader?
These are difficult questions, but they are ones that the district will have to face, whether it wants to or not.