Toronto’s top educator says sorry after admitting to plagiarism

TORONTO – Canada’s largest school board said Wednesday it will discuss whether to discipline its top educator after he admitted to plagiarizing parts of an opinion piece published in a major Toronto newspaper.

Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton said there has been some discussion within its ranks over Chris Spence’s admission, which he said came “as a great shock and a surprise.”

But the matter hasn’t been formally debated and Bolton said he didn’t know if board members would push for the director of education to resign.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss it with (the trustees) as a group and I need to get a sense of what they’re thinking to know how to go forward at this point,” he said.

Spence posted a letter on the board’s website Wednesday morning saying that as an educator, he “should know better” than to cite other people’s work without attribution — something he said happened five times in the op-ed he penned for the Toronto Star.

“I can provide excuses for how and why this happened – that I was rushed, that I was sloppy, that I was careless – but that’s all they would be: excuses,” he wrote.

“There is no excuse for what I did,” he added.

In the letter, he pledged to take “real and meaningful steps” to learn from and make up for his misbehaviour, including taking a journalism ethics class and ensuring his apology is permanently displayed.

Spence, who has been at the helm since 2009, noted students found to have plagiarized automatically receive a failing grade on the assignment — a minimum penalty he said isn’t nearly strict enough in his case.

But it’s unclear whether there will be consequences beyond his self-imposed penance.

“I think that Dr. Spence has put forward what he sees as being his own sort of specified personal program of discipline or re-education or whatever you want to call it,” Bolton said.

“But is that appropriate, is that enough? I don’t know,” he said.

The board planned to hold a meeting Wednesday night but Bolton said the agenda was already set in stone. He said there may be a chance to discuss the issue at the end, when trustees are allowed to introduce new business.

Spence’s article ran on Jan. 5 and focused on the importance of extracurricular activities, which have been cancelled in many schools due to the ongoing labour strife between teachers and the province.

The newspaper said the plagiarized material came from several sources, including a blog belonging to the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, an online encyclopedia and a 1989 New York Times op-ed.

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