The local high school board has no plans to admonish one of its own members for plagiarizing a speech.
The Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board of Trustees discussed the scandal at its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 13 and ultimately decided against taking any further actions with regard to the speech Trustee Dan Johnson gave at the June 13 Arcata High School graduation ceremony. Johnson read what he described as a letter he had written to his daughter. However, most of it was lifted, without attribution, 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.
The NHUHSD board has been publicly criticized for being slow to respond to the speech and for not condemning Johnson’s actions. That criticism continued at last week’s meeting, which Johnson didn’t show up to. The embattled board member was also a no show at the July 26 special meeting, during which the board accepted his written apology.
‘You’ve lost my respect’
“I know the board wants to move on, but there’s been a wrong that has yet to be righted. So it’s just not possible to move on,” AHS English teacher Joanne Moore told the trustees.
“Due to your inaction and your fully inadequate response to the plagiarism issue with your fellow board member Dan Johnson, I just want you to know – from my perspective as a teacher, as a parent, as a taxpayer, as a voter – you’ve lost my respect and trust as a board because I need to believe that you’re going to do the right thing, and I haven’t seen that happen,” Moore said.
Sylvia De Rooy, a long-time resident of Westhaven who now lives in Eureka, was also frustrated by the board’s inaction.
“I’m singularly disturbed by the response, or lack thereof, of this board to what Dan Johnson did and the example that he set for the school children of this area,” De Rooy said. “ This board basically did next to nothing. They just let it ride by and that is not acceptable. It is an issue of integrity and there is nothing more important to me than issues of integrity.”
“I’d like to see some real and concrete action so the community can know that integrity is important,” De Rooy told the trustees.
‘Shame, shame, shame’
Former NHUHSD trustee Kathleen Marshall accused the board of having a double standard.
“I am here to say shame, shame, shame on all of you,” Marshall testified. “I cannot believe that the administration and the board has made a conscious choice to accept this situation as it is.”
The board, she said, has “one standard for a prominent member of the community and another standard for everybody else. Every faculty member and every student in this school district is subject to consequences that are very severe for plagiarism.”
Marshall suggested that the board censure Johnson for his speech.
“Board members, you should know that at the very least you can censure Mr. Johnson. That is not censor, it’s censure, which means you make your displeasure very publicly known,” Marshall said. She added that the board has the authority to ask for Johnson’s resignation.
Diane Stockness of Trinidad noted that school starts in two weeks, and it would be best if the board asks for Johnson’s resignation and moves on.
Conversation would be better without public?
Trustee Dana Silvernale said she wanted to have an opportunity to speak to Johnson and have a discussion about the controversy.
At one point she suggested that the topic be placed on a future agenda as an informational item only. This would allow the board to discuss Johnson’s speech without taking any action.
But board President Mike Pigg said having such as agenda item is unnecessary. The agenda format, he explained, already has time allotted at the beginning for public comments, and time alloted at the end of the meeting for board member comments. This provides plenty of opportunities for the board to discuss the issue, Pigg argued.
Dan Collen said that board members should be allowed to place items on an agenda, so he would support Silvernale’s request.
But Silvernale said she didn’t want to place the item on the agenda without the consent of her fellow board members, so she dropped the idea.
Silvernale said that she wished the board could meet in closed session to discuss the matter without having the public present to hear the conversation. ” I think it would be much more productive,” Silvernale said.
“But we don’t have that option,” Silvernale said. “I don’t know what to do about it.”
‘Intense and awkward’
As the conversation continued, Superintendent Chris Hartley acknowledged that the situation was unusual.
“It is an intense and awkward situation. It is out of the norm. It’s an abnormal situation, no question about it,” Hartley told the board. “I understand it’s uncomfortable.”
Hartley told the board that it had the option of censuring Johnson. This would be in the form of a resolution. “It’s a statement of admonishment. Simply a statement,” Hartley said.
If the board wants to pursue censure, Hartley said he would confer with legal counsel and bring the item back to the board.
But there was zero board support for officially admonishing Johnson for plagiarizing a speech.
Silvernale said she was concerned that censure was a “slippery slope” that could be used in the future to punish board members with diverse opinions.
Colleen Toste repeatedly raised concerns about the unintended consequences of taking action.
“We need to make a determination on what’s going to be most productive and what’s going to be most effective,” Toste said.
“People may receive an opposite result than what they want,” said Toste, who didn’t elaborate on what the result or opposite result would be.
Later in the meeting, Toste defended the board’s inaction.
“I very much stand by our action, or inaction, that people think we might be taking,” Toste said.
“Sometimes when you push too hard one way, you get the opposite result,” Toste said.
President Pigg ended the meeting by sharing his views on the Johnson scandal.
“I’ll be up front. Dan Johnson is a friend of mine. That doesn’t sway my decision one way or another,” said Pigg, who added that he doesn’t support what happened at the graduation ceremony.
“The community keeps driving (this) home. That’s very frustrating, I have to say,” Pigg said. “I think it’s up to Dan to decide what to do. He’s an elected official. He’s a big boy.”
The next NHUHSD meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 at the McKinleyville High School multi-purpose room. According to board members, Johnson is expected to attend and read his written apology.