Steal This Prose

A good student plagiarized five stories and forged a letter

Soon after writing the piece, Benn spoke with Sementilli. "I told her 'congrats' on one of your volunteers winning the award," Benn said. "She was confounded." Adds Sementilli: "He sent me the name by e-mail and I was like what... I called Evan when I realized what happened, and I said this is very screwed up."

The Herald, according to Wilson, assigned Broward Assistant City Editor Linda Streitfeld to investigate. Ironically, she is on the board of the foundation that had given Ahmad the Culpepper fellowship. She and Benn turned up the forged letter. Streitfeld called Sementilli, the Dynamites director says. "It was an intimidating call... She said, 'You could be sued for slander.' That made me angry. I said wait a minute... she's threatening me, and I'm telling the truth."

Streitfeld denies threatening slander but acknowledges that she cautioned Sementilli not to talk about Ahmad "in an accusatory way." After several days of investigation, she says, the Herald determined that Ahmad had "defrauded the program."

Mark Poutenis

Then a weird coincidence occurred. On May 18, the Herald published a story announcing that a new Silver Knight winner had been named and only in the ninth paragraph mentioning that Ahmad's award had been rescinded. Sementilli's complaints were edited out, Wilson explains, "to not make a big deal of it."

The same day, May 18, a story appeared under Ahmad's byline titled "Their Hearts Are in Haiti" about a high school group aiding Haitians. At least six long sections were stolen almost verbatim from a March 7 Herald story by... Evan Benn. "We're not in the business of bringing down little girls, but something had to be done," Benn says. "Why would she have to do this? A culture of pressure and overachievement maybe."

Benn told Herald Managing Editor Wilson, who phoned Sentinel Managing Editor Sharon Rosenhaus. "I felt I had to make the call," Wilson comments, "especially given the concerns that we have in the industry these days [about plagiarism]. We all share the responsibility." Rosenhaus immediately took action, he says, and the next day, the Sentinel published a note to readers stating that "Sun-Sentinel policy clearly prohibits the use of material from other sources without attribution."

Ten days later, on May 29, the Sentinel published another correction noting that a high school contributor had pilfered material improperly in five of the ten stories she had written. "The freelance contributor no longer writes for the Sentinel," the note concluded.

Then, Sentinel Executive Editor Earl Maucker penned a June 6 column noting that the paper employs 120 students "at any given time" and that it plans to continue doing so. Again, he didn't mention Ahmad.

"I was very happy with their response," Wilson says of the Sentinel's finding.

I'm not -- or more accurately, I'm dissatisfied with the conclusion that readers are likely to draw from reading the daily newspapers' responses to the mess. Two things are clear to me after digging through Nazish Ahmad's record: (1) The young woman was pushed too hard, too early, and wasn't given sufficient instruction, and (2) though she's largely to blame for this morass, she has probably learned her lesson.

Daily newspapers have become so desperate to attract young readers these days that they have sent the kids to the front lines too early. And journalism instructors, eager to involve kids in the trade, have created a culture of awards and fellowships that is too intense, even for seemingly smart, mature kids like Ahmad. Childhood only happens "once in a lifetime," to use Ahmad's phrase from the Sentinel video. Do we need to transform our kids into adults so early?

"I experienced a tug of war in my heart over this," Sementilli says. "Here is somebody who went too far because she needed it and because others encouraged it. But at the same time, it is someone who crossed too many boundaries to get what she wanted."

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