With the festering scandal over a plagiarized speech crippling its ability to conduct business, and with the public demanding that action be taken, the local high school board voted Tuesday, Sept. 10, to ask Trustee Dan Johnson to resign.
The 3-1 vote by the Northern Humboldt Union High School District (NHUHSD) Board of Trustees came after a tense meeting at which a defiant Johnson lashed out at critics, called them “haters,” criticized the superintendent’s job performance and accused a fellow board member of posting “hurtful” comments about himself and his family on the Internet.
More than 140 people packed into the McKinleyville High School Multi-Purpose Room to hear the board discuss the issue, which has plagued the district since Trustee Johnson gave a plagiarized speech at the Arcata High School graduation ceremony on June 13.
This was Johnson’s first public appearance since giving the speech. He was a no-show at the last two meetings, due to what he described as an “intense personal issue.”
Last week’s meeting began with public comments similar to those heard at the last two meetings. Residents said the board needed to take action and do something about Johnson’s plagiarized speech.
But there was also a strong contingent of Johnson supporters, who rallied behind the embattled board member. About half of those who spoke said it was time to “move on” – a term that saw frequent use – that Johnson had made a mistake and apologized. His good deeds and dedication to the district should not be forgotten, they argued.
After hearing public comments, the trustees began their deliberations determined to resolve the controversy and put the issue behind them. They also repeatedly defended their actions and responded to public criticisms that they had failed to act and, in doing so, had coddled their fellow board member with special treatment.
Board defends its actions
“It’s taken so much time and so much energy out of people for such a long time. It’s a very serious matter,” said Trustee Dana Silvernale, who requested that the issue be placed on last week’s agenda.
Silvernale said the trustees hadn’t had an opportunity to sit down together with Johnson and discuss the issue. She said she didn’t feel it was right for the board to take a stand without first having a conversation on the matter.
Board President Mike Pigg also defended the board’s actions. He noted that after the graduation speech, Superintendent Chris Hartley and Trustee Dan Collen went on vacation.
“It was very hard to move faster than we did in addressing this issue,” Pigg said.
When they returned from vacation, a special meeting was held on July 26, during which the board approved a process to try to prevent such incidents from happening at future graduation ceremonies.
“Still, that didn’t satisfy the public, it didn’t satisfy the media. And some board members still had a hard time not hearing from Dan Johnson.” Pigg said.
Pigg acknowledged that Johnson’s failure to address the issue early on made matters worse.
“One of the roles of the board is to communicate with the public. And if there’s anything Dan has let down in his role, is not communicating with the public,” Pigg said.
When Johnson finally did issue a public apology in July, it fell short of board expectations. In particular was the final two sentences in Johnson’s apology, which were repeatedly referenced by trustees at last week’s meeting.
Johnson ended his July apology by stating “I understand that for some in our community – the self-appointed referees of good and evil – no explanation or apology I can offer is good enough. But I’m comfortable in the knowledge that their intolerance, so readily on display, is a far more profound flaw than mine.”
This didn’t sit well with Pigg. “I’m going to speak for myself. I don’t think it was the greatest apology. I wasn’t very happy about the last line. It wasn’t a good comment from a board member,” he said at last week’s meeting.
Johnson’s apology, Pigg noted, did not put the controversy to rest.
“So with the help of the media, things kept growing and growing,” Pigg said of the summer speech scandal.
Apparently, Pigg had additional conversations with Johnson with the hope that the board member could issue a proper apology and resolve the issue.
“I spoke with Dan and I asked if he could listen to the comments and he could issue a statement. That’s what the board member needs to do. I hope we hear that statement tonight,” Pigg said.
But when it came time for Johnson so speak at the meeting, his latest apology was anything but contrite.
Full text of Johnson’s apology
“First of all I’d like to apologize to the board for missing the August meeting. As many of the board members and administration know, I was dealing with a pretty intense personal issue with my family that took complete priority over this board during those months, so unfortunately I was unable to make the July meeting and./or the August meeting,” Johnson said.
“Thank you all for the kind words and support…. I really encouraged a lot of the people to not come, because I felt like I didn’t want to waste the district’s time because at the end of the day we’re here to do something better for the kids.”
“I’m sorry for the people who have some not-so-kind words feel the way that they feel. I think that if you really got to know me you’d probably have a different interpretation. But unfortunately the people that have those unkind words don’t really have any idea who the hell I am as a person nor do they care who I am as a person because not one person has picked up the phone and wanted to talk to me about the subject other than the media, which I’m unwilling to have a conversation with.”
“We need to move this district forward and focus on the kids. That’s what this is about. I’m sorry the district and fellow board members that they’ve had to go through this. It’s been not a pleasant situation for Dr. Hartley, brand new superintendent, and I’d bet he’d look back and say he hasn’t done everything correct. And I’m sorry the district has had to go through this.”
“Most importantly, sorry to [my] family, and the 18-year-old girl who has graduated and everybody thinks is ruined for life is standing right back in the back of the room and maybe you want take a few minutes to actually ask her how she feels about this and what she’s learned about treating human beings through this process because she may have a different interpretation than what you all say she has.”
“It’s a shame we can’t take the passions in this room and take all the energy into educating about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol. Or working to ensure the homeless kids we have in our school can get to school every day and eat three square meals and maybe even have some shelter.”
“As my brother spoke a minute ago, I’ve been on this board now a total of three years, coming into the end of the third year, and I’ve never seen this many people in the room combined for the entire time I’ve been on the board. It would be great to see this kind of energy around trying to make this district a better district. If this many people put their energy into caring about kids this district would be even better than what it is today.”
At this point in Johnson’s apology, someone in the audience was talking and laughing. Johnson looked toward the north side of the room and directed comments at someone who he believed was a teacher, although later he admitted he couldn’t see who had disrupted his comments.
“You can give me the respect to listen to what I have to say, this teacher, because I can tell you right now if someone was sitting in your classroom laughing while you’re lecturing, you’d probably send them out,” Johnson said.
At that, he raised his arm and pointed toward the door. “So why don’t you head out of the room right now and go stand in the hallway while I speak and have my opportunity to talk. Thank you,” said a visibly angry Johnson.
He then continued his commentary, which seemed to suggest that his critics in the room, many of whom were teachers, parents and students, weren’t doing enough for the schools.
“I urge you all in the room to run for the board. I urge you to get on a committee. Get involved in a classroom. Put some passion into the school, and actually see if you can make a difference in a kid’s life, like everyone of these board members who are on here have made,” Johnson declared.
“We all need to move this district forward and focus on the kids. We need to leave the district and the administration and the board alone. They have acted, they have taken the action and they are not in this. If you want to keep running me through the media, and running my family through the media, then so be it. But the district and the board needs to be left alone. They have done what they should do, they have done everything that they can do.”
“I acted at graduation as a dad and I meant every single word I spoke. I’m not perfect. None of us are in the room, by the way. There was nothing malicious intended. Nobody was killed, no drugs were given or sold to any children. Just a simple message to my daughter [name redacted], who’s in the back of the room, written in my words with the input of years of learning and coaching from many, many people.”
Johnson then cited David McCullough Jr. (referring to him as “McCoughlin”), who gave the original “You Are Not Special Speech” that Johnson plagiarized, as one of those people who gave him “input.” Johnson also cited numerous influential businessmen like Bill Gates, as well as friends and family members for giving him inspiration.
At no point in last week’s apology, or in his previous written apology, does Johnson use the word “plagiarism.”
“Yes, I made an error. Who has not?” Johnson continued. “All I can do is apologize and learn, which I’ve done.”
“I find it disheartening that people so quickly forget all the wonderful things that people do in their life and they jump on the controversy. I guess that’s human nature, certainly not my human nature. We’ve all learned from this. The district and the board has listened and acted on your concerns. It is time to move on and focus on improving the already exceptional district and educating and providing extracurricular activities for the experience of our kids here in the Northern Humboldt Unified [sic] School District. Thank you,” Johnson concluded.
The audience bursts into a thunderous applause. Numerous people rose from their seats and gave Johnson a standing ovation.
‘Plagiarism, by anyone, is unacceptable’
Johnson’s feisty apology and his lashing out at critics didn’t go uncommented by fellow trustees. But before the board got down to trying to resolve the issue, some trustees felt compelled to again defend their actions over the last three months.
“I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions, first of all the approval of plagiarism,” said Trustee Colleen Toste to the packed house. “Not only did the board hold a special meeting in the summer and provide an open forum for the public to come, we also issued a press release that stated a firm belief that plagiarism is unacceptable. We affirmed that we uphold academic integrity at all levels in the district. To me that means from students through board members. If we support plagiarism as some have tried to indicate why would we take the time and effort I just described and craft steps that Chris [Hartley] described to ensure that it never happens again? The message was very clear to our students, teachers and staff and the entire community – plagiarism, by anyone, is unacceptable.”
As for accepting Johnson’s written apology, Toste clarified that the board accepted his statement at the forum and into the minutes, rather than the content of the apology. “That’s it,” she said.
As for calls that the board make Johnson resign, Toste said the board doesn’t have the legal authority to do so.
“To look at us as not taking action, or coddling Dan, is completely wrong. He hasn’t been coddled, he just doesn’t want to resign. Why not censure, people say. Many people have been speaking loud and clear that they want Dan to resign and think that a public condemnation of Dan’s speech will get that result. They don’t know Dan Johnson,” Toste said.
‘I accept Dan’s apology’
Trustee Dan Collen said that Johnson has been a good board member and provided the district with lots of expertise.
“He did apologize. I accepted his apology,” said Collen, who agreed that the last paragraph in Johnson’s written apology should have been left out.
“I respect Dan Johnson, I think he made a mistake – I know he made a mistake. No one on this board approves of plagiarism,” said Collen. “I’d like to move on. I accept Dan’s apology. I think this community needs to do that as well.”
‘Something more has to happen’
But Dana Silvernale had a different take on Dan’s apology and his conduct, which she said appears to violate the board’s governing standards.
Board members, she said, are supposed to keep the district focused on learning and achievement for all students. The board has lost that focus as a result of Johnson’s speech and his response to critics, she said.
“It’s been how many months now that our focus has been on Dan’s speech?” Silvernale asked.
Board members, she said, are supposed to operate openly with trust and integrity.
“I think we have. I don’t believe we violated the Brown Act,” said Silvernale, referring to allegations that the board violated state law by holding numerous secret meetings via e-mail and possibly telephone calls, during which a quorum of the board tried to figure out how to handle the scandal.
Another board policy requires that trustees “govern in a dignified and professional manner, and treat everyone with civility and respect.”
According to Silvernale, Johnson violated this policy.
“I think that Dan, you made a mistake. I’ll take your word that you didn’t know, you didn’t even think you were plagiarizing, that you thought you were taking really inspiring ideas and conveying them… But your closing paragraph, accusing people of being the judges of good and evil who would never be satisfied unless you resigned, was not respectful. It just invalidated the whole apology.”
Silvernale then referenced the earlier incident in the meeting when Johnson told someone who he believed to be a teacher to stand in the hallway for interrupting his apology.
“That comment really makes me question whether you can be trusted to behave in a civil and respectful manner and to really listen to what everyone has to say,” Silvernale said to Johnson.
Silvernale said that while there were people early one who were calling for Johnson’s resignation, there were others who wanted to just hear a sincere apology and who would be willing to move on.
“Your apology destroyed that opportunity,” Silvernale said. “So it seems to me something more has to happen.”
Silvernale told Johnson he needed to take responsibility for what he did and “you need to do something to compensate for it.”
“What can you do, Dan, to make things right for our community?” Silvernale asked him.
She asked Johnson how he was going to be able to effectively serve as a board member at events, like the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new bleachers at McKinleyville High School scheduled for Friday, Sept. 13.
“You have a lot of people who are upset and very distrustful of you. What’s it going to be like?… How can you be an effective and joyful member of the board in that kind of environment?” Silvernale asked.
“I’m not in a position to answer those (questions) tonight,” Johnson responded.
“Need to hear a sincere apology’
Moving closer to a resolution, Trustee Toste made it clear who she would be representing when making a decision.
“I think it’s important that we listen to our community. I appreciate people coming here who live in Eureka and Fortuna.,” she said, referring to the Johnson supporters who turned out for the meeting. “That’s wonderful to come and support Dan and the good deeds that he’s done. But I really think it’s important for us as a board to (remember) that we are the Northern Humboldt School District, and that’s who I want to represent – your views, your wishes and your concerns.”
Later, Toste said “What I hear people saying is that we either need to hear a sincere apology from Dan, or he needs to resign.” Her statement was greeted with applause.
‘A loss of trust’
President Pigg found himself in an awkward position of having to criticize Johnson, with whom he went to high school and considers a personal friend.
“There’s been trust that’s been broken, a loss of trust with our staff and our kids,” Pigg said about the situation.
“But I do know that teachers feel this is a big issue and they’re not happy with how Dan has been responding. I’m not happy with how Dan has responded. I accept his apology, but I don’t accept that last line. I have hard time with that.”
Pigg said he also has a hard time with Johnson’s tone with staff.
“You don’t know how hard it is for me to say this, but…” Pigg said, pausing and appearing to choke up. “I’ve known Dan since high school. We’ve done a lot of things together. And he’s done a lot of good for this community… if Dan can’t step up before this crowd and give an apology that is heartfelt… I’d like to ask for a motion for Dan to resign. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Next was Johnson’s moment to try yet again to give the kind of apology that board members wanted to hear, but it didn’t happen.
“You spoke that the focus continues to be on the speech,” Johnson said. “The focus is on the speech because we’re letting it be on the speech. So if the board and the administration… we need to move on from the speech, then the speech is no longer the focus. You know, the closing paragraph, I just want to speak to that because there are some pretty hurtful things that your colleagues are saying about me in the blogs… As a matter of fact, one of your colleagues, I won’t mention the name of that colleague… has actually said in a recent blog that I bought my daughter’s 4.0 grade point average, that I bought the teachers off to get her that grade…”
“So the reason I put that last paragraph in there was because the personal things you people in this community have said about me and my family, I had the opportunity to say something,” Johnson said. “And, and, let me tell you what, I could have said a whole lot more. And, and the comments that I made to the young lady in the front row, I’m not even sure who that is, I can’t see that well and can’t even tell who the person is, but she was being disrespectful. She was laughing and talking while I was speaking. That’s disrespect, and that shouldn’t be accepted in any classroom…”
“The last thing I would say is that, you know, the board needs to take a stand,” Johnson said. “I’ve taken a stand. I’ve made a mistake. I gave my apology, and there’s nothing I could have said in that apology that could have been good enough for the haters. There’s nothing, and it’s over. We need to move on.”
Johnson’s final comments were met with applause from the audience, but he’d sealed his fate with the board.
The final vote
Silvernale said that the comments showed that Johnson doesn’t know how to treat other people. She also asked Johnson who the colleague was that posted the comments on the Internet.
“Yeah, I was speaking of you,” Johnson said to Silvernale.
In an email interview Sunday, Silvernale wrote that she was confused by Johnson’s comments and left the meeting unaware that he had accused her of posting comments about him on a blog – a charge she flatly denied.
Silvernale asked Pigg if his comment that the board call for Johnson’s resignation was a motion. Pigg said no, it was just a suggestion. Silvernale moved that the board call for Johnson’s resignation. The motion was seconded by Toste.
The board voted 3-1, with Trustee Collen dissenting, to ask for Johnson’s resignation.
Trustee Dan Collen said he was a “process guy” and didn’t see the point of asking for Johnson’s resignation. The voters, he said, have the option of voting Johnson out of office when he comes up for election, or they have the option of recalling Johnson.
Johnson abstained from the vote and made no further comments.
The vote signals board disapproval of Johnson’s performance, but does not require him to resign.
(See a video of Johnson’s apology at www.mckinlyvillepress.com.)