The latest chapter in the chronicle of Idaho's newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra took a turn Dec. 3. But it didn't play out at the Idaho Statehouse or the Department of Education. Instead, it occurred inside Boise's Borah High School, where senior Harmony Soto was approached by a classmate who had read Soto's article in the just-published Borah Senator--the school's newspaper.
"You've got some serious guts to do this," said the classmate, pointing to Soto's column titled "New Chief of Schools Plagiarizes to Win Elections."
The following day, a career counselor at the school walked into a classroom, waving the newspaper while asking, "Who did this?"
Soto had become a minor celebrity at her school after she took Ybarra to task for copying, nearly verbatim, content from her opponent's website at the height of this past fall's election.
"Welcome all to the Sherri Ybarra era," wrote Soto, chastising the superintendent.
As if that wasn't controversial enough, Soto deliberately copied, nearly verbatim, from Boise Weekly.
To be sure, the media loves a story about other media, but when you pepper that with stolen content and a student scolding the highest-ranked educator in the state, something's got to give.
The story gained steam on Dec. 17 when Idaho Public Television's Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin called BW to inquire about the origin of Soto's article.
For the record, I was contacted by Soto and her mother in mid-November, shortly after Ybarra secured 51 percent of the statewide vote to become Idaho's newest superintendent of public instruction. Soto's request was equal parts unique and controversial. She said she wanted to, quite simply, plagiarize my reporting--although there was nothing simple about the possible consequences. My reactions ranged from intrigue to apprehension, and I needed to talk to Soto's teacher and newspaper adviser, Michelle Harmon, before going forward. In a longer conversation with Harmon, a few days later, we talked quite a bit about how common it was for media outlets to aggregate, borrow and flat-out steal content from other outlets and how that could trigger greater conversations among Borah's student journalists.
"I started thinking about how many times in our English or history classes here at Borah that we're lectured about how to cite your sources and give proper credit to people," said Soto, who found particular resonance with Ybarra's controversy of borrowing content and posting it to her own campaign website. A spokeswoman for the superintendent-elect insisted that Ybarra had "apologized on behalf of her web team employees because that is what good leaders do."
As soon as Davlin's Idaho Reports story on the controversy, titled "Plagiarism with a Purpose," hit the web Dec. 17, the Associated Press followed suit, as did Idaho broadcast outlets and, yes, even the Idaho Statesman included the controversy on its Dec. 18 front page. In a case of class work imitating life, BW had only spoken with Davlin. In other words, all of those other media outlets were aggregating or "borrowing" from each other's account of the controversy.
Even national media pundit Jim Romenesko weighed in on jimromenesko.com, writing an online story headlined, "High School Newspaper: Our State Schools Boss Plagiarized, so We're Doing it Too."
Meanwhile, back at Borah High, teacher Harmon said her email inbox was full, mostly from other teachers, applauding Soto's efforts.
"A lot of them wanted to say how great a 'teachable' moment this was," Harmon told BW.
One good controversy usually deserves another, leading more than a few people to wonder about possible consequences for the incident.
"Any scholastic journalism teacher knows about the conflict between an institution and reporting on that institution, and in this case the student reporters are part of that institution. It's a classic struggle," said Harmon. "But I think a lot of people are really proud of us, and especially proud of Harmony."