Did Melania Trump plagiarize? Absolutely, Kansas City teachers say

It took just minutes after Melania Trump finished her speech Monday night for allegations of plagiarism to be raised. She addressed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
It took just minutes after Melania Trump finished her speech Monday night for allegations of plagiarism to be raised. She addressed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Bloomberg

Republican lawmakers and national party figures on Tuesday called allegations of plagiarism against Melania Trump “virtually nothing” and “absurd.”

But several Kansas City educators said Tuesday there’s no question. The Monday night speech by Donald Trump’s wife clearly lifted parts of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech without attribution and some lawmakers’ dismissal of the issue is just as concerning as the evidence of plagiarism itself in Donald Trump’s campaign, the teachers said.

“It was clearly plagiarized,” Chris Loggins, a senior English teacher at Van Horn High School in Independence, said about portions of Melania Trump’s speech. “It’s so bad, it’s comical.”

On Tuesday, several educators who had listened to Missouri and Kansas lawmakers dismiss concerns that the speech was plagiarized said they were frustrated, puzzled and distraught by politicians’ refusal to acknowledge what many feel is a blatant case of borrowed language. Throughout the country, academic integrity policies and other professional codes hold both students and professionals to standards that allow individuals to be disciplined, flunked, suspended, fired or sued for committing plagiarism or intellectual theft.

“As educators we have to draw hard lines on what plagiarism is,” Shawnee Mission district teacher Maureen Frazell said. “We are trying to show kids the right way to do things. Blurring those lines is making it more complicated for us...It gives the impression that it doesn’t matter. And it does. The consequences in education are big.”

Outside of a public outcry, the consequences for Melania Trump and others who may have helped write her speech appeared to be non-existent, as the Trump campaign called allegations “absurd” and said similarities in the speeches were coincidental.

“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect,” Michelle Obama said in 2008.

Melania Trump’s speech used similar and verbatim words:

“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.”

For several educators, there was a clear disconnect between the standards instructors strive to teach students about intellectual honesty and what many feel is a blatant case of unchecked plagiarism.

If Melania Trump had been a student when Dylan Burd taught high school writing, there’s no question, he said, she would not have received credit for her assignment.

“It was essentially word for word copying with no credit or acknowledgment to the person who originally crafted those ideas, which was Michelle Obama,” said Burd, who most recently taught third-, fourth- and fifth-grade writing at the Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City.

He also found it curious that there didn’t seem to be any effort to mask plagiarism.

“Beyond laziness,” Burd said, “it shows an entitlement to the credit and work of others.”

If Melania Trump had been a seventh-grader in Frazell’s English classroom at Westridge Middle School in Overland Park, Frazell would have been instantly disappointed. It wasn’t just that Melania Trump’s speech was a clear case of plagiarized words, Frazell said. Melania Trump also failed to capitalize on a larger opportunity — to share her own story using her own words.

In doing so, Frazell pointed out, she left her audience with little new information than they had before her speech.

Frazell said would have done what she does with every young student who turns in plagiarized work in her class: take her aside one-on-one and remind her that a reader is more interested in her original thoughts than anyone else’s ideas and there is no right or wrong when it comes to opinion.

“Show us who you are,” Frazell might have said. “We know who Michelle Obama is...We don’t need you to be her. We want to know who you are.”

If Melania Trump had been a student in Susan Bentzinger’s English class when she taught at the University of Missouri, Bentzinger would have flunked the student and put a permanent notation in his or her records. If Melania Trump were a team member of Bentzinger’s advertising team when she switched industries, Bentzinger said the infraction could have been a fireable offense.

“It’s theft of intellectual property,” Bentzinger said.

It’s also theft, Loggins said, that educators teach as easily avoidable.

If Melania Trump had been a student in Loggins’ class, he would point out that because portions of the speech were word-for-word verbatim and the ideas exactly the same, Melania Trump would have needed to attribute them to the original source.

“You’d say, ‘Much like in Michelle Obama’s speech, I believe…” Loggins said. “We go over how to cite credible sources all the time...This is an expectation. That’s a big part of the writing process, and a huge part of being credible.”

All in all, educators said that students would receive various disciplinary action for infractions involving plagiarism, from flunking an assignment, to having parents called, to being suspended or even expelled at upper levels. At a professional level, many pointed out, intellectual theft could cause someone to lose a job.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s campaign announced it had no plans to fire or discipline anyone involved in producing Melania Trump’s speech. Later in the day, Donald Trump officially became the Republican nominee for president.

“I don’t see how or understand why of all people the wife of the presumptive nominee for the candidacy for the highest position in our country,” Burd said, “wouldn’t be held to the same standard and accountability in that situation.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen