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Paper Withdraws Column Over Possible Copying

Piece by Pasadena schools chief uses phrases similar to sermon posted on Web.

May 05, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

A Pasadena newspaper said Thursday that it is reviewing a guest column written by the superintendent of public schools because the text contains phrases similar to a widely distributed sermon delivered years ago.

The column in Thursday's edition of Pasadena Weekly written by Pasadena Unified School Supt. Percy Clark Jr. was removed from the publication's website after questions about the origin of several passages were raised, Editor Kevin Uhrich said.

The questions emerged in a local school Internet discussion group, whose moderator contacted the Weekly.

Uhrich said he was not accusing Clark of impropriety. "We wanted to talk with him first about if this is more just a failure to attribute or actual plagiarism," Uhrich said. "We are still looking at it and want to give him the benefit of the doubt on this."

Late in the day, the Weekly also posted an editor's note on its website about the piece:

"After looking at the passages in question, it appears some words and phrases were lifted verbatim and then used by Clark. Other parts of the speech were paraphrased or changed slightly. The question is: Is Clark guilty of plagiarism, or did he merely use material that he did not properly attribute?"

Uhrich also said he should have checked the references cited by Clark before publishing the article. The Weekly has frequently criticized Clark's leadership and had editorialized that he should be dismissed. Uhrich said he solicited the article after a lunch with Clark in which the superintendent spoke eloquently about the value placed on children in various cultures.

Clark said in a telephone interview Thursday that questions about the article were "much ado about nothing" and strongly denied copying someone else's material.

The column in question is a guest opinion piece that praises the gains in test scores made by Pasadena students. Clark suggests that the gains could be greater if children were society's top priority. He asks whether children can be "the major political and policy issue in our society" and invokes several cultural examples, including the Masai tribe in Africa, which uses the phrase Kasserian ingera, which means, Clark wrote, "how are the children?"

"To this day it is still the greeting among the Masai," Clark wrote. "This acknowledges the high value the Masai place on their children's well-being. The Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its priority agenda, and what really is ultimately important to perpetual success and greatness in a village, community, state or nation. The response, 'All the children are well,' means that daily life is good."

Clark also wrote of the greeting: "Would this start making a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared for in our community, state or even nation?"

The questions center on a speech attributed to the Rev. Patrick T. O'Neill, a Unitarian Universalist minister then serving in a parish in Framingham, Mass., apparently written in 1991 as part of a sermon and widely circulated since, often without attribution.

In it, O'Neill also writes about the Masai greeting:

"It is the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even the warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer. 'All the children are well.' Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless are in place, that the Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. 'All the children are well' means that life is good."

In another part of the speech, O'Neill wrote: "I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared for in this country?"

O'Neill could not be reached for comment.

Clark said the Masai story was widely known. He said that while researching the story, he pulled together several references from the Internet but did not see O'Neill's speech.

"I did not understand that the words were the same as the original sermon," Clark said. "The material is reflected in several different places on the Internet, and I tried to pull together a story that would fit with what I was trying to say about children. I paraphrased from the documents I saw. This is not plagiarism."

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