NHUHSD addresses plagiarized speech

Six weeks after delivering a plagiarized commencement address at the Arcata High School graduation ceremony, NHUHSD Boardmember Dan Johnson responded last week with a written statement of apology.

Johnson didn’t attend a Friday meeting of the high school district’s Board of Trustees which had been specially called to address the issue and take comments from citizens.

Photo by Kevin L. Hoover

Photo by Kevin L. Hoover

Board president Mike Pigg read Johnson’s statement aloud, including a cover letter to boardmembers.

Johnson’s statement includes an explanation for “an issue that has been made” of his repurposing of Wellesley High School teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s famous “You Are Not Special” commencement speech, but billing it as a letter he had written to his daughter.

Johnson apologizes for not giving proper attribution. He says his real message was, “achievement is based on results, and results are what is most valued.”

The embattled boardmember concludes with a volley at critics: “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.”

“I know we’re here on July 26, finally addressing the issue,” Pigg said. He said staff vacations had contributed to the delay in convening the board to respond.

Johnson’s sympathizers were few in number – four, to be exact – and they were all members of the NHUHSD board.

Pigg said the graduation ceremony had been “great,” but that “there might have been an error not crediting someone in a speech… It’s unfortunate that Dan made the speech that he did.”

He stressed that attribution is important for students in their homework and on the student newspaper, The Pepperbox. “They need to acknowledge people when they write stuff.”

He called Johnson’s statement “long overdue,” but said that “I accept Dan’s speech, and hope that you can accept Dan’s speech – faculty, staff, students – and that we can move on from here and get back to taking care of the Northern Humboldt School District.”

“He didn’t realize it was plagiarism,” said Boardmember Dana Silvernale. “I think that Dan is learning from this. It was a huge embarrassment and humiliation for him, and I think that’s enough.” She said the statement “represents him well and honestly.”

“I accept Dan’s apology,” said Boardmember Dan Collen, praising Johnson for providing a “great deal of leadership” on the board. “I think he’s a very good boardmember. I think he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. He’s now apologized for that mistake and I’d like to see us move on.”

“We have done everything that we could, legally” said Boardmember Colleen Toste and that the board can’t force its will on an individual boardmember. She noted that school resumes one month from the date of the meeting, and that much work needs doing to prepare for the new school year and the district’s 1,700 students. “I would really like us to look forward and move forward as well,” Toste said.

Citizen assessments were not so indulgent for the errant, absent boardmember.

Harriet Watson, teacher and parent of two students who heard Johnson’s speech, didn’t contest his service or contributions to the district. “That doesn’t excuse this serious breach of ethics,” she said. “It’s not just that he didn’t credit Mr. McCullough, he said, ‘I wrote this. These are my words for you.’ That’s even more egregious… I don’t think Mr. Johnson should continue to serve on the school board.”

AHS history teacher Doug Johnson said Dan Johnson’s precedent will complicate his ability to take students to task for similar offenses.

Larry Green found the apology wanting. “The assumption that the intolerance of his critics is greater error than his own is an indication that he thinks the teacher is to blame for a student not getting a good grade,” he said.

Mary Ann Madej said the scandal was being watched outside of Humboldt County, especially by students. She faulted Johnson for not immediately apologizing and taking responsibility. “We have to teach our students to be honest and take responsibility for their mistakes,” she said, urging Johnson to do the same.

Madej said she was “insulted” by his  apology, “that my caring about integrity in the students is considered intolerance.” Continued Madej, “Hiding under a rock for six weeks and then insulting the community is not my idea of taking responsibility for his mistake.”

“The only course of action I see is resignation,” said Brian Lovell. “I think you could encourage him to resign. It’s the only way to solve your problem.” He said Johnson’s accusatory apology “blamed the victim.”

Parent Nick Applemans called for the board to support teachers in enforcing educational standards, which are undermined by giving Johnson a pass on his conduct.

“There’s no question that this is an issue that’s bigger than what you are acknowledging,” he said.

Applemans said character can’t be taught, but must be modeled, and that the board had to provide a suitable example for students.

Retired teacher Kathryn Hungerford found Johnson’s apology “disingenuous.” She said he and the school shouldn’t tolerate plagiarism and idea theft, and that his lack of awareness didn’t let him out of his responsibilities as a school board member. “He sought this position n the school board,” Hungerford said. “He must be held to the same standard as the students… He must not be retained on the school board.”

AHS graduate Shea Lignitz applied Johnson’s own message to the situation. “As Mr. Johnson so blatantly pointed out, none of us are special, so why is he?”

She called his singling out his daughter for attention at the graduation was “a breach of ethics,” since the graduation was supposed to honor all students. “I no longer believe he is a suitable figure to represent the district,” she said.

Retired teacher Steve Irwin asked the board if it would accept the excuses Johnson offered from students who might make the same mistake. “I wonder if you have thought about changing your policies regarding plagiarism so it won’t be such a big deal,” Irwin asked. He humorously suggested that teachers be retrained to be “more tolerant of lying and cheating. It seems to me that’s the direction you’re suggesting.”

Student Grace Lovell said the commencement speech wasn’t appropriate. “As a student, what I see is a wealthy man with a lot of money, power and influence getting away with something because he is ‘well intentioned.’”

She said his apology was “covered in excuses,” and that that’s not an apology to me.”

Arcata High senior Nora Lovell thanked Johnson “for teaching me that the rich and powerful can get away with stuff.”

AHS English teacher Joanne Moore said she had attended the June 25 board meeting and waited for the board or Johnson to address the matter. “Nothing was said,” she noted. “Your excuses about timing ring hollow to me.” She said Johnson’s apology wasn’t adequate.

Other speakers continued the same themes, castigating Johnson both for the stolen speech and the harsh apology. Several cast the board as complicit in supporting privilege and undermining academic integrity.

“It will be a drag on this institution for as long as he is a member,” said retired teacher Allan Edwards.

Superintendent Chris Hartley suggested that the board develop a specific prohibition against plagiarism, and develop standards for boardmember conduct as well as commencement ceremony policies.

The board then voted to form a subcommittee to do just that. The board will establish “protocols for approved academic and ethical standards for all communications.”

It will review graduation ceremony standards, including boardmember participation, and develop a “Board Governance Handbook” to clearly define the trustees’ duties

4 thoughts on “NHUHSD addresses plagiarized speech

  1. The other board members’ decision not to throw their colleague under the bus is admirable, but as a result of their response to this situation, I won’t be voting to re-elect any of these people.

  2. I find it shocking and wrong that Mr. Johnson was not forced to resign. Plagiarism is a basic concept taught in every school. I find it very hard to believe that he was unaware of this. I did not witness his speech, but have heard tales of the “showboating” with his daughter at the expense of the rest of the graduating class. Shame on Mr. Johnson and shame on the remaining board members for not calling him on his actions and dismal, victimized apology. To let this type of behavior slide is a dangerous choice and a slippery slope that will undoubtedly lead to lower educational standards and lower morale for all students in the district. I agree with others that all this teaches our young people is that if you have enough money and influence you can get away with bad behavior. As a school board member Mr. Johnson should be held, at the minimum, to the same standards as the students who attend the institutions he is supposed to be guiding and overseeing.

    • Well said, Mr. Johnson should resign, and the other board-members owe us all an apology for defending plagiarism and dishonesty by their non actions and non words. They have dishonored and disrespected parents, students, teachers, staff and administrators.

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