High school board member gave plagiarized graduation speech

NORTHERN HUMBOLDT – Despite the growing uproar over the commencement speech he gave at a June 13 Arcata High School graduation ceremony, NHUHSD School Boardmember Dan Johnson is remaining silent on the issue.

A member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board of Trustees – which oversees Arcata and McKinleyville high schools – Johnson had not returned e-mails and phone calls made by the Arcata Eye and McKinleyville Press as of press time on Monday afternoon.

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson

For his AHS commencement address at Humboldt State’s Redwood Bowl, Johnson called his daughter, an AHS student, up to the stage and told her he was going to read a letter he had written to her – but that she had never seen before.

Johnson then read without attribution a piece, most of which was lifted from the famous “You Are Not Special” speech given by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to that school’s class of 2012.

Many of the students recognized the speech, as they had done a rhetorical analysis on it for their AP English class last year.

Not only has Johnson been tight-lipped about the controversy, but so have most of his fellow school board members.

E-mails sent to Boardmembers Dana Silvernale, Colleen Toste and Dan Collen were not returned.

Board President Mike Pigg was the only boardmember to respond.

“It’s unfortunate that Dan made the choice that he did. I am going to leave it up to Dan on how he would like to respond. I guess board members, superintendent and principals will need to have a discussion and review about graduation speeches prior to the ceremony. We have never had to in the past,” Pigg wrote in an e-mail.

AHS Principal Dave Navarre stated in an e-mail, “ I really have no comment regarding any of the speeches. Overall, the ceremony was a wonderful celebration for a truly exceptional group of AHS students.”

“I do not like to see any of this take away from the accomplishments of the class of 2013,” said NHUHSD Superintendent Chris Hartley ” The students worked hard to get where they are and we wish them the absolute best in the future. Administration, teachers, staff and students work hard in preparing for each ceremony and all of our high school graduations were terrific celebrations. I look forward to discussing with our administration, staff and board how we can best honor our students in the future.”

Hartley promised future action to address the apparent plagiarism. “The board, principals and I will work collaboratively as usual to work through the details of this particular situation,” he said. “Anything broader than that you will need to speak directly with Dan.”

Letters to the editor and comments about the speech posted on the Arcata Eye and McKinleyville Press Facebook pages nearly all condemned of Johnson’s failure to provide attribution for the speech. Some called it sad while others said it was inappropriate and disrespectful. Some have called for Johnson’s resignation from the school board.

Letter to the Editor: Painful betrayal

When Mr. Dan Johnson, member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board of Trustees, took the podium at the Arcata High School graduation in Redwood Bowl on Thursday, June 13, he announced his intention of sharing a letter he had written to his daughter.
Instead, he read aloud marginally altered excerpts from a commencement speech which Mr. David McCullough Jr. delivered to the graduating class of Wellesley High School, Massachusetts, in June, 2012.
Perhaps Mr. Johnson thought that nobody would notice his plagiarism, despite the fact that a video of Mr. McCullough’s address has registered more than two million viewings on YouTube.
If so, he was mistaken. Several of Arcata High’s seniors had studied Mr. McCullough’s speech during the preceding school year and were therefore painfully aware that their graduation ceremony was being marred by a supposedly respectable authority figure laying claim to something that rightfully belonged to somebody else.
Having taught at Arcata High for 18 years, I know that my colleagues and I repeatedly stress to our teenage students that merely altering the occasional phrase or omitting the occasional paragraph does not change the fact that one is lying and stealing when, without attribution or acknowledgment, one presents someone else’s work as one’s own.
Mr. Johnson betrayed the very principles of academic integrity that Arcata High seeks to instill and uphold. He owes an apology to all who attended this year’s graduation, especially the graduating class of 2013.
Iain Macdonald

Letter to the Editor:The cheater

must apologize

Thank you for casting the Eye on Dan Johnson’s plagiaristic oration. Since my son Aidan graduated last week, I was in the audience. I wasn’t sure what the point of Mr. Johnson’s rather overlong speech was, but had to give the man credit for being one very clever writer. Immediately after the speech one of Aidan’s friends informed us that the man didn’t write the speech at all.
Going online with “you are not special” I found that Mr. Johnson lifted about three quarters of his speech verbatim from a teacher named McCullough – who wrote it last year for a commencement in Massachusetts. It had been widely covered by pretty much all the national news outlets, from Fox to the Times to NPR.
All of which raises some serious questions about Mr. Johnson’s judgment, especially as it applies to his representing the Northern Humboldt High School District School Board.
Right off the bat, asking his daughter, without warning, to come and stand silent on center stage while he read “his” lengthy and rather preachy letter to her – in front of a couple thousand people… Well, let’s just say I know my boys wouldn’t have appreciated me putting them in that situation. It seems a severe misreading of what it is to be a teen.
Then, of course, what was he thinking? That maybe no one else had access to the Internet, or even TV? Given today’s circumstances, he might have been safer doing the Gettysburg Address.
And there is the matter of acknowledgment. He owed it to Mr. McCullough to give the man the credit he deserves. Period. I would never expect someone to buy one of my paintings and then sign it with his own name and give it to someone else.
But the big question is, what kind of message does the school board want to send to its students? My own kids have been dinged for just one or two paragraphs borrowed a bit too liberally from an online source. When they have an assignment, they’ve learned that they have to think for themselves – and they have to put in the time and the work that an original product requires.
Mr. Johnson, quite frankly, didn’t do his work. In the process, he has sent students the message that cheating and cutting corners are OK.
Whether or not Mr. Johnson believes those means should be employed in writing, or any other work, they are definitely not principles that should be tolerated by the school board from one of its members. At the very least he owes some public apologies all around — to the students, to the school board and to Mr. McCullough.
Alan Sanborn

Letter to the Editor:
A thief and a liar

Out of respect for the dozen or so students whom I failed for their plagiarism during my career as an English teacher, I ask you to resign your position as a board member.
As our students know, this is a serious offense; you have acted as both a thief and a liar.
Please set the right example and step down immediately. You can no longer stand as an effective leader of a school if you don’t know what plagiarism means.
An apology doesn’t mean much. My students all apologized for their plagiarism, but they still received a failing grade. And most of them honorably accepted that failing grade.
Steve Irwin

Letter to the Editor: Dan Johnson
must resign

I was saddened to read that what I had thought about Dan Johnson’s speech at Arcata High’s graduation was indeed true.
An apology from Mr. Johnson is not enough! He is an elected official charged with leading our young adults. Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong. Students have been expelled from college over the years for this transgression, they certainly would receive an F, at the least, in English classes at Arcata High.
There is only one honorable remedy for Mr. Johnson, RESIGN. Dan Johnson, effectively cheapened what should have been a proud monument for the members of the class of 2013, their beloved school and their families.
Dan Johnson must face the consequences for stealing, he must resign.
Brian Lovell

3 thoughts on “High school board member gave plagiarized graduation speech

  1. Steve Irwin is absolutely right. An apology from Dan Johnson with a wink and a nod from the Board would be an insult to the commencement audience and graduates.

    Dave Navarre and Chris Hartley avoid the real issue by deflecting the criticisms of Dan Johnson with comments about the exceptional students in the graduating class and about not wishing to detract from the celebration of their achievement. The students’ celebration has already been demeaned, and the only way to make this right is by full acknowledgement of Dan Johnson’s egregiously poor judgment. The entire audience is watching this being played out. Plagiarism is not only unbefitting a community leader in the field of education, but it is completely contrary to the values of our educational system.

    Nothing short of a demand for Dan Johnson’s resignation would demonstrate respect for the graduates, current as well as future Arcata students. Moreover, the Arcata High graduates of the future will perceive their school as a sham unless their leaders can be held accountable for their actions. What hypocritical message do you give them about intellectual integrity if you sweep this under the rug?– not to mention the implication that they are undeserving of a respectable school administration?

    • Mike Pigg also seems to be missing the crux of the issue – the Board needs to discuss Dan Johnson’s resignation or termination, not vetting future graduation speeches!

  2. It is a sad page in the history of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District that one of its leaders publicly committed the worst of academic violations, and not one person in the leadership position of that district, whether the board members, the superintendent, or the principals seem to have the courage to apologize or condemn such actions in the public forum in which the violation occurred.
    According to Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “to plagerize” is “to STEAL and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own; to commit literary theft.”
    In the academic world, plagiarism is one of the most egregious violations of integrity one can commit. And to that very issue, we have the case of a Northern Humboldt Union High School District’s board member doing just that — in his commencement speech to the students this past June.
    Board members (with the exception of one, whose comments seemed anemic in relationship to the violation committed) have been silent on the issue, and emails dealing with the issue have not been answered. School leaders have shown a plentiful lack of leadership and/or opinion on the issue. A board meeting is scheduled for August 13th to “discuss vetting future speeches.” Right. That is akin to the proverbial slap on the wrist by the dean when a student shows up to school drunk or when a student slugs a teacher.
    We have an epidemic of plagiarism in our nation’s academic world, yet when a school board member, one who is supposed to be respected for embracing the highest ideals of academia, is the one committing the worst of academic offenses, something more than a slap on the wrist is in order, especially since the board member has of yet refused to make a public apology after having been long since “outed” for his violation of academic principles.
    To that end, I am including some words that the board member may freely plagiarize:
    “I am resigning my position as board member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, effective immediately, because I plagiarized my speech to the graduates of 2013, and because I did not have the personal integrity or courage to publicly apologize for my volition of public trust after I was discovered. Because of these two errors in professional judgment, I am no longer worthy of holding such a position of public trust and honor.”

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