An independent contractor who was paid $10,000 by the DeKalb County School District to analyze its alternative education program copied more than a third of his report from scholarly publications posted on the Internet, according to an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and interviews with the authors of the original works.
The contractor, Ralph Taylor, said through a spokesman Wednesday that he’d made an “inexcusable mistake” in not attributing portions of his report and vowed to relinquish his fee. But, he said, “I am not a plagiarist, and plagiarism was not my intent.”
Taylor was contracted for the analysis in 2011, then offered a job as an associate superintendent in DeKalb shortly after finishing it.
School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson said Taylor’s job is safe. “The infraction pertains to his work as a consultant, not as an employee,” she said through a spokesman.
Taylor’s statement came two days after the AJC contacted the school district about similarities in his analysis to two papers written by authors from outside Georgia.
Taylor’s 15-page document — the school district calls it an “audit” — has been posted on the district website for months. It includes six pages with similar — in many passages, identical — prose to that in a report from the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and a paper from William Drakeford, an assistant professor at Bowie State University in Maryland.
“I’m just astonished that somebody would do something like that,” Drakeford said when told of the similarities to a 2004 paper he wrote about race and school discipline. He said he was paid nothing for his work. When told how much Taylor got, Drakeford whistled softly.
“Wow,” he said. “This person’s in trouble.”
David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, the main employee advocacy group in the district, said Atkinson’s decision to keep Taylor in his job probably won’t go over well with teachers. “What kind of example does this set? Anybody else who has that type of problem is going to have to be given the same benefit of the doubt.”
Plagiarism is a violation of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission code of ethics. It can result in suspension or revocation of certification, said John Grant, the chief investigator there. “The commission has considered plagiarism in the past and has issued serious sanctions.”
Taylor was paid to examine alternative education programs for student relations, safety and security. The audit says its focus is “on those serving school-aged vulnerable youths who have dropped (or have been pushed) out of traditional schools.” Yet that language, with the exception of one word, comes from a 2003 report by the Urban Institute.
The AJC learned of the similarities between the DeKalb audit and the Urban Institute report from a tipster who discovered them by entering phrases from the audit as search terms in Google. The newspaper then used the same technique to independently verify similarities to Urban Institute researcher Laudan Aron’s work and also discovered the similarities to Drakeford’s work.
At the newspaper’s request, Aron reviewed a copy of the DeKalb audit. She noted the likeness to her work.
“There are some parentheticals that are dropped and a few word changes here and there, but it does look strikingly similar,” Aron said of four pages in the audit.
“This is largely my work,” Aron said. “Does he cite me?”
Taylor’s audit cites neither Aron nor Drakeford. It does contain citations, but only those that appeared in the other authors’ texts.
Taylor’s name doesn’t appear on the audit. However, the district’s website identifies him as the author. Internal documents show he was given little written guidance on what to produce, though clearly the evaluation needed to be original and tailored to DeKalb. The DeKalb website says Atkinson contracted with Taylor and several other consultants during her first 90 days as superintendent in 2011 “to evaluate specific division functions, processes and services.” The consultants’ work was needed “to make operational changes to improve organizational efficacy.”
Atkinson and Taylor both worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the mid-2000s.
The AJC filed an open records request for Taylor’s contract and a description of the work performed. The contract detailed the required work in 19 words: “Audit the daily operations of the alternative education programs for the following: student relations, public safety and security systems.”
When the audit was completed, the school board, acting on Atkinson’s recommendation, voted to hire Taylor as associate superintendent for support services. In that job, Taylor earns $117,461 a year and is responsible for monitoring student behavior, discipline and motivation.
Neither Taylor nor Atkinson would make themselves available for an interview, and Atkinson did not answer several questions submitted in writing.
A written statement provided by school district spokesman Jeff Dickerson on Taylor’s behalf said: “I made an inexcusable mistake in failing to attribute portions of a report I wrote for the DeKalb County School District.”
Taylor went on to say plagiarism was not his intent. “It is not tolerated among our students and staff, and cannot be tolerated by consultants.” He apologized “for any embarrassment” he may have caused DeKalb.
School board chairman Eugene Walker said he hadn’t seen Taylor’s audit, but said it would be “unacceptable” for a professional to copy other people’s work. “You can’t prohibit a student from plagiarizing and then permit some staff person to do it,” Walker said. “It would be unacceptable, and disciplinary action would have to take place.” He said any discipline would be the responsibility of the superintendent.
The final two pages of Taylor’s audit contain disciplinary recommendations that replicate, with the exception of a handful of words, half a page in Drakeford’s paper.
Nine pages appear to contain original recommendations though. Taylor proposes changes such as departmental reorganizations, counting and locating staff, consolidating buildings and measuring performance. But those suggestions are thin on facts and detail.
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, has read the audit for himself. He said he was unimpressed.
“It had no detail and had no specificity and I don’t see what use that could have been to the superintendent. She should have known,” said Jones, who chairs the DeKalb Senate delegation. He said Taylor’s subsequent hiring “calls into question the decision-making process that our superintendent used in selecting this person for this position.”