I recently had the incredible pleasure of working with Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, offering an assembly and working with some of the classes to think more about what it takes to build a truly inclusive community.
It was inspiring to work with Columbine, as I have never found a community as committed to or as successful in building a community where all people feel safe (a subject about which I hope to write more sometime soon). This level of inclusiveness has been hard won, with staff and students working hard to ensure that the defining characteristic of their school is not related to the tragedy that occurred there in 1999 but is the commitment born before and renewed after that tragedy to make sure that every person who walks in those doors feels safe to fully be themselves.
No one is more committed to inclusiveness than Principal Frank DeAngelis, the long-time leader who is set to retire in a few months. Before my assembly, I had the chance to sit with Mr. DeAngelis (Mr. De as the students call him) to talk about Columbine and to get some pointers on best serving the community. During our talk, he mentioned a few words and phrases that can be triggering to people at Columbine, and he asked that I avoid using those phrases. I took notes, and scratched out a few phrases from my outline, adding alternatives for me to use in the margins.
My remarks in the assembly were based in the theory of critical mass, empowering students to realize that if they want to change their community for the better, they don’t need to get a majority on board. Instead, they simply need to get a critical mass working for positive change.
While in the early stages of explaining the idea (which is somewhat abstract and needs some real-world examples), I clicked to my next slide, an example to prove the point. In that moment, I realized the grave mistake I had made: my slide used one of those triggering phrases that Mr. De had asked I avoid! I quickly clicked past the example and, flustered, attempted to explain the concept, doing a poor job in the process.
I basically said that the idea, which I noted had been studied by many sociologists, allows a small group of people to inspire powerful change simply by being vocal proponents of new social norms, and I moved on.
After the assembly, a few students asked me to better explain the concept, and I laughed, explaining how I had screwed up with the slides, and further explained the sociological theory.
Well today, a few weeks after visiting Columbine, I got an email from a teacher at the school who was, to put it mildly, unhappy with me and my presentation. She felt like I had deceived the students into thinking that the concepts of critical mass and tipping points were my own rather than those of researchers like Mark Granovetter, Thomas Schelling, and (most well-known) Malcolm Gladwell.
In short, she accused me of plagiarism.
And you know what? She’s right!
When I taught high school, I always stressed to my students that they had to take great pains to cite their sources, for even accidental omission of a source is, by definition, plagiarism.
Though my omission of the names of the researchers upon whose work my remarks were based was accidental, a result of my flustered, poor explanation of the concept, those omissions are still plagiarism, and that’s not only not cool, but it’s downright unethical and illegal. Though I did mention vaguely the work of “sociologists” who have studied the idea, that’s not enough.
Thus, I owe an apology to the Columbine community. No matter my excuse, I should have clearly cited my sources, and for not doing so, I am sorry.
Additionally, I owe that teacher a big thank you! After all, I wouldn’t have realized my mistake without her email, and as a result, she is helping me to continue my journey toward accountability and integrity. I work hard to ensure that whatever I produce, whether it’s a blog or a presentation or training, is well-grounded in research and clearly cited. And here, I fell short.
If nothing else, I hope this will act as a model to any of the students who read my blog: always be careful to cite your sources.