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Chapel Hill High School principal accused of plagiarism

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From the Chapel Hill High School student handbook: Plagiarizing is copying the language, structure, idea and/or thought of another person and representing it as one's own original work or using information obtained from printed or electronic media that is not appropriately referenced.

Looking back, the alleged plagiarism might have gone unnoticed were it not for one careless sentence the Chapel Hill High School principal wrote in an October condolence letter to a teacher.

"Everyone at Skyline is saddened to learn of the death of your mother," the letter said.

It seemed Sulura Jackson, who arrived in Chapel Hill this summer with a sparkling, lengthy résumé, had failed to remove the name of her former school, Skyline High, in Ann Arbor, Mich., from the text.

Teachers who spoke to the INDY on the condition that their names not be used for fear of retribution say the incident prompted them to dig deeper.

What they found is startling: Multiple documents obtained by the INDY that show Jackson—before and after her arrival at Chapel Hill High—lifted entire passages and letters from books, online articles and teaching resource guides. She used those passages without citation in staff memos, letters to students and even recommendation letters for colleagues, frequently passing them off as her words.

The condolence letter could be forgiven, one teacher said, but not this. "It's tough when we have someone who is supposed to be the leader of our school," the teacher said. "I would think that we would at least try to keep the same standards we hold our students to."

Teachers said it's an embarrassment to the school and to Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, both of which are known for their burnished academic reputation, high test scores and classroom innovation.

"If a student did what she's done, they would probably get a zero on that assignment," one teacher said. "Being in education, your intellectual property, that's what people make their livings on."

In some cases, Jackson, who won a Michigan secondary school association's award for top high school principal of 2010–2011, used uncited text pulled from various sources. In others, she seems to use entire letters, such as an online welcoming letter for students posted by an Arizona principal. Sometimes she seems to have attempted to disguise the copied text by changing a single word while retaining the overall form and structure. Other times, entire passages were printed unchanged.

Reached by the INDY Monday, Jackson acknowledged she will use form letters, books and articles to inform her writings, but she denied any wrongdoing.

"I'm not under the impression that I can't use that," Jackson said. "This is not anything that I'm selling. This is not anything that I'm using for personal gain."

Jackson indicated she was surprised some teachers are angry, adding that had they questioned her, she would have cited her sources.

"I've never intentionally said these are my words, these are my thoughts," she said. "I'm getting these thoughts from other places. I don't pull them out of thin air. I'm always reading."

But the documents, which are signed by Jackson, seem to contradict that statement. School system leaders said little about the subject when it was brought to their attention Monday afternoon.

"We like the fact that Principal Jackson is increasing communication levels at the school in her staff newsletters," said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella in a statement. "We encourage her to continue and ensure all sources are cited." Board of Education Chairwoman Michelle Brownstein could not be reached for comment, but board member James Barrett said Monday that he did not know about Jackson's alleged plagiarism.

Barrett said he expected Forcella to make a recommendation on the matter in a closed session prior to Thursday's scheduled school board meeting, slated for 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Center in Chapel Hill. The subject would be discussed in closed session because it likely would be considered a confidential personnel matter under open meetings law.

Barrett said school board members could decide whether they agree with Forcella's recommendation. "We have to uphold the standards for our students," he added. "We expect our professionals to meet the standard. I don't know anything about this in particular, but that's what I would expect of our professionals."

Prior to her 16-year stint as a teacher and assistant principal in Detroit, Jackson earned a master's degree in education. After four years as a principal in Detroit and nearby Farmington, Mich., she was the founding principal of Ann Arbor's Skyline High in 2006, where she was publicly lauded by school administrators for leading an innovative curriculum and planning the public school's magnet program.

Like many educators, Jackson had her detractors, illustrated by caustic online comments on a Michigan newspaper article in March that announced her departure for Chapel Hill.

"North Carolina's loss is our gain," writes one anonymous poster. Others wrote that her principal award was undeserved and that Skyline teachers celebrated her move.

"Skyline students deserve a top-rate principal," one commenter said. "Regardless of what is said or printed, Jackson was far from a first-rate principal."

Internet commenters are not known for their neutrality or fairness, but Chapel Hill teachers say the comments seemed a warning sign. Her apparent plagiarism confirmed their fears.

"Our school district hired a firm to try and find her," one teacher said. "None of this came up, which is interesting to me. It didn't take a couple of teachers with Google very long to find it."

The teachers who spoke to the INDY said they have nothing personal against Jackson. As an administrator, she's been a capable, if commanding, leader. But they say plagiarism is, at best, unwise; at worst, dishonest and hypocritical for a school principal.

"Teachers often borrow and share things," says one teacher. "That's not unusual in a school, but I don't think I've ever seen a teacher or administrator put his name on something that he didn't write."

Association of American Educators spokeswoman Alexandra Freeze, whose national nonprofit is known for codifying ethical boundaries for educators, says an administrator or teacher should act as an example for students.

"Educators are called to be professionals both in and out of the classroom," said Freeze. "Based on our Code of Ethics for Educators, 'the professional educator acts with conscientious effort to exemplify the highest ethical standards.' Plagiarism has absolutely no place in an academic setting.

"As professionals, we must recognize the position we're in and respect our students and profession as a whole."

But Jackson said it's unfair to set that standard. "It's like apples and oranges," she said. "I don't think you can put those two together because students are submitting work for a grade. I'm not submitting it for a grade. I'm not submitting it for any kind of compensation."

The allegations might prompt new controversy at Chapel Hill High. Last year, prior to Jackson's arrival at the school, Forcella transferred two longtime teachers because they were reportedly clashing with school administration.

Their transfer prompted outrage by some teachers and parents, but the teachers ultimately were forced to accept their new positions after unsuccessfully petitioning a Superior Court judge to block their transfer.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesman Jeff Nash referenced the school's transfers when discussing Jackson's case, blaming the public allegations against the new principal on "disgruntled folks over there who don't like change."

"The bigger problem is that we have teachers who would send these things to a reporter to start trouble," Nash said. "They should rather just talk to staff."

Teachers say that's not realistic. The Republican-led N.C. General Assembly passed education laws that will eliminate tenure for teachers, potentially making it easier to fire them.

The teachers who spoke to the INDY said they feared reprisal from school administrators and that the overall climate toward teachers pushed them to appeal to the public and the media—rather than the school system—for help. "There's been so much negativity directed at teachers over the last few years," one said. "I think that people feel beaten down."

It's not as if teachers want Jackson to lose her job, they say. They just want the principal to cite her sources.

"I have no personal grudge against her, I hardly even know her," said one teacher. "I would just hope that administrators are held to the same standards of accountability as teachers or students."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Chapel Hill High."

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