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TDSB director urged to step down over plagiarism

Education director Chris Spence: ‘This is a step in the right direction.’

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The fate of the leader of the Toronto District School Board will be determined by trustees, who will consider taking disciplinary action – including demanding his resignation – following revelations that he is guilty of plagiarism.

Education director Chris Spence faces calls to step down after confessing that he copied the work of others in an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star earlier this month.

His eyes red, his voice wavering, the former professional football player apologized to students and community members Wednesday ahead of a meeting of the TDSB. He deferred questions on whether he would resign, saying it was up to the board.

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"I'm ashamed and embarrassed by what I did," he said. "My fate is in the hands of the board of trustees."

The controversy comes at a difficult time for Canada's largest school board, as it is embroiled in a battle with the Ontario government, which has said the TDSB lacks proper accountability and controls over its operations.

In addition to his public apology, Dr. Spence has pledged to enroll in a journalism ethics course at Ryerson University.

Many felt that wasn't enough.

The consequences when a student plagiarizes are dire, and should be the same for the director, said trustee Sam Sotiropoulos.

"We give students a zero for plagiarizing," he said, adding that he was surprised Dr. Spence hadn't extended an offer to resign already.

Mr. Sotiropoulos and his fellow trustees will meet to discuss Dr. Spence's fate in the coming days.

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Carmel Suttor, a Toronto elementary teacher and mother of two, said students don't get second chances and neither should Dr. Spence. "If he really believes in the seriousness of plagiarism, he should voluntarily step down."

Brian Lee, a 16-year-old student at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute, said he and his classmates debated the issue in his Grade 11 English class on Wednesday.

Many of his peers felt the director had set a bad example and should be fired, but Mr. Lee thought that went too far. "Getting him fired is too much, but maybe something along those lines like a forced leave-of-absence."

When an academic is found plagiarizing, his or her previous writings – such as a doctoral thesis – should be reviewed to determine whether the dishonesty is a one-off offence or part of a pattern, said University of Calgary professor Irving Hexham.

"If you catch somebody doing this sort of thing, all of their work ought to be thoroughly checked. It's the track record that counts, because everybody can make a mistake," said Prof. Hexham, who has written on academic dishonesty.

He contends that institutions do not take a hard enough line on cheaters, in part to protect their own reputations.

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Dr. Spence's piece includes no less than five instances in which he failed to credit sources, according to his apology.

According to the Toronto Star, a reader alerted the paper to the plagiarism. The following passage was among those lifted from The New York Times:

"We are challenged through sport to use our minds in guiding our bodies through the dimensions of time and space on the field of play. Learning the skills of sport provides opportunity to experience success."

Dr. Spence is an advocate for engaging youth through sport. His Hoops 4 Hope basketball team raises money for underprivileged students. He was a strong force behind the handful of elementary school sports and fitness academies that opened this fall.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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