Johnson So Far Speechless On Copycat Commencement

Dan Johnson cartoon by Dave Held
Jack Durham & Kevin L. Hoover 

Mad RiveNewspapeGuild 

NORTHERN HUMBOLDT – Despite the growing uproar over the plagiarized 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.

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.

Dan Johnson delivering the plagiarized commencement speech. Submitted photo

Dan Johnson delivering the plagiarized commencement speech. Submitted photo

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: 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 boardmember.

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 



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  1. Pingback: You’re REALLY not special | SorryWatch

  2. Allan Edwards said:

    Ian Ray, Yes, I read this link, also. Thanks for sharing. The woman's tone, demeanor, and response were completely opposite to what the public was served up by Dan. Had Dan's apology come immediately, with much more contrition and no snarkiness, I might not be so critical, though I do not believe he deserves an "accept-let's-move on." That would be a dangerous precedent to set for an "academic leader." However, I do like the contrast between the Alberta board member and the Arcata's. It offers the same problem, but with two clear examples of character differences.

  3. Ian Ray said:

    Allan Edwards, nice Google search.

    I like this link:

    This person didn't lash out at people who questioned her speech, she just apologized. Almost the same circumstances where she was a trustee giving a speech to the graduating class of her child.

    I guess Dan Johnson should have used Google twice: once to plagiarize a graduation speech and then again to look up how to apologize for plagiarizing a graduation speech.

  4. Allan Edwards said:

    Jim Urton Jim, to my knowledge, the NHUHSD policies do not allow for expulsion based on plagiarism. I do know, however, that if students at many prestigious colleges and universities plagiarize, they ARE expelled.

  5. Allan Edwards said:

    Jim, google "plagiarized graduation speeches" or "those who plagiarize graduation speeches." When reading the articles, be sure to read what the offenders do. I believe you will discover that most apologize (quickly) and then resign.

  6. Pingback: Johnson-less NHUHSD Board Accepts Apology, Citizens Don’t | The Arcata Eye

  7. Ian Ray said:

    I am not calling for his resignation. I am trying to say that intentions for plagiarism are irrelevant and Kevin Hoover's analysis of your reasoning is correct.

  8. Jim Urton said:

    Mr. Ray, I will say this once again, I never said what Mr. Johnson did is acceptable. It would appear that you and Mr. Hoover seem to share the same basic misunderstanding of your pet term. I have pretty clearly stated that he used poor judgement; that he made a mistake. But if you want to take one sentence out of context to try and make a point, that's your preroggitive.

    I merely used the example of others doing the same thing but only receiving failing grades on their assignments. They were not expelled from school (or impeached and removed from office in the case of JFK). Evidently you can't see that demanding Mr. Johnson either resign or be forced out of his position on the board as the same type of double standard you are all so concerned the students may view this as. If I were sentenced to a prison term for exceeding the speed limit when you were fined $1 and sent on your way for the exact same offense, would you consider that "fair"?

    As for the "apologist" comment, perhaps when you show me where I either defended what was said or justified it in any way. Then you may have a point. I did say that he had broken no laws and that his intentions were to do something special for his daughter, so if you want to call that "apologizing", go right ahead. However, my only argument all along has been the equal application of "punishment" for what you are all up in arms over.

  9. Jonathan Webster said:

    I'm sure he's planning to respond eventually he just hasn't found the proper apology letter to copy and paste yet.

  10. Jonathan Webster said:

    Jim Urton "Perhaps the students that witnessed Mr. Johnson’s speech can learn that even good people can make mistakes, because after all, we are human. The lesson can be as simple as, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”"

    you have to acknowledge an error in order to be forgiven for it

  11. Jonathan Webster said:

    oh chill out people, dan is much too busy rewarding himself with an extravagant vacation to comment on this. and I mean its not like he lied to an entire school, just the graduating kids. and hundreds of their friends and family. and it's not like he stole the ENTIRE speech. only like two thirds. big deal. its just a school. it's only a future generation of adults and their entire conception of integrity at stake here. whatevs.. inner-tubing is too much fun to worry about a minor flub like this. and I mean it's not like you have to apologize for or acknowledge or regret ALL of your mistakes in life. give him a break. maybe he'll apologize next time.

  12. Ian Ray said:

    Jim Urton, your use of tu quoque fallacy is pretty much the textbook definition. "No one has excoriated JFK for his plagiarism." That is pretty much the equivalent of "But Johnny did it too!"

    Apologist means "A person who argues in defense or justification of something." Your perspective is an apologist tu quoque fallacy. All Kevin was trying to do is put your perspective into perspective.

  13. Jim Urton said:

    Mr. Hoover, your use of the phrase "Tu Quoque logical fallacy" would make more of an impactif it were used in proper context. I have not once said that plagiarizing was acceptable simply because others have done the same thing. What I did say was that it is you and others here suggesting that Mr. Johnson should be "punished" by having him either resign his position, or be removed from it. That would seem to be the double standard here, since none of Mr. Irwin's students were expelled when they plagiarized.

    I also believe you are not familiar with the definition of "apologist". Not once have I excused what Mr. Johnson did. I am simply simply putting this episode into perspective. Where you and the others here want to use a sledge hammer to kill a gnat, I am simply saying you have already expressed your opinion about what he did, time to move on. You are making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill.

    However, if you and the others feel that by-laws were violated, then by all means convene a session of the board to address that. Let the prescribed process deal with the issue. That would also be a better lesson for those students to learn, that we as a society deal with alleged transgressions via due process rather than just running someone out of town on a rail.

  14. Ian Ray said:

    Are you seriously going to put quotes around credit as if you were using it ironically?

  15. Kevin Hoover said:

    Again the Tu Quoque logical fallacy. But think about it: plagiarism and failure to follow through with ANY redress is a terrible example for students, regardless of what JFK said or whether or not he had ever been born.

    The only double standard here is the one advocated by apologists. Students are intensely aware that they wouldn't be allowed to skate if they represented an entire speech composed by someone else as their own work. They simply want DJ held to the same standard – beginning with an explanation by the accused. That's what would happen if they did it.

    You didn't say the plagiarism was acceptable. You do minimize the stature of the offense at every turn, even suggesting that objections be dismissed before Dan Johnson has even addressed the matter. Do you know that he wants forgiveness?

    It's probably predictable that those who call for accountability by people in positions of influence are going to be ridiculed as being on "soapboxes," told to "move on with their lives," are merely "offended," and so on.

    Local citizens support the school district via taxes, and recently passed a huge bond for high school improvements. They have a right to expect that those who are spending the millions of dollars behave in a basically ethical manner.

    If school board members will publicly lie about a letter to their daughter composed of stolen verbiage, then refuse to answer for it, then one wonders, what ethical standards do they consider important?

    The citizens and students also have a justifiable expectation of adequately educated students. The kids are learning a much bigger lesson from the way this real-life situation is being handled than they would in any civics class. That lesson is: the well-connected are different.

    I wonder how you think that lesson would be improved by dropping the matter before DJ has even explained his actions?

    Plagiarism is academic malpractice, exercised by someone who is, according to the NHUHSD by-laws, representing the board and district.

    States the NHUHSD by-laws:

    "When speaking to community groups, the media, or other members of the public, individual Board members should recognize that their statements may be perceived as reflecting the views and positions of the Board. Board members have a responsibility to identify personal viewpoints as such and not as the viewpoint of the Board."

    Is plagiarism viewed as acceptable by the NHUHSD board? Probably not, but absent any comment or action from any of them, it's fair to wonder what their standards are. Further:

    "All public statements authorized to be made on behalf of the Board shall be made by the Board president or, if appropriate, by the Superintendent or other designated representative."

    The superintendent has stated that Dan Johnson is the one to address this. He has remained silent. With this perfect circle of silence, the board and DJ are evading their basic responsibilities to the students and the district.

  16. Jim Urton said:

    For whatever reason, hitting the "reply" button on Kevin Hoover's post is not working, so I will respond here: First, perhaps you can point out to me where I said this was acceptable? I said he made a mistake. That's pretty clear in my comments.

    Secondly, regardless of your "professional analysis" of my reasoning, I was hardly suggesting that because little Johnny jumps off the bridge that I should, too. I was attempting to to put this into perspective. That perspective being when others have done the same thing (JFK, some of Mr. Irwin's students, to name a few.), were any of them expelled from office or school? This seemingly is what most here feel should happen to Mr. Johnson. Why the extreme measure for him but not for others? And you ask me whether I "want a different standard applied to students who might be tempted to steal the work of others?" I'm not the one applying the different standard, Mr. Hoover.

    Once again, any wrong-doing as a result of plagiarism would be against the original author, not any of you. You certainly don't have to like what Mr. Johnson did, but you are all out for blood when none of you was transgressed. If you were offended by it, that's another story. But none of you were damaged, either physically or monitarily, or infringed upon by what Mr. Johnson said.

    Fortunately, the Constitution guarantees us the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nowhere is is stated or implied that we have the right to not be offended. So, get up on your soapboxes and declare for all to hear that Mr. Johnson receives a failing grade for his lapse in judgement, then move on with your lives. That's a much better lesson for those students to receive than one where an individual is held to a double standard simply because he offended some people.

  17. Nick Appelmans said:

    Students have one more reason to question authority when they show up in the fall. Squandering the opportunity to demonstrate that the administration is impartial in its dealings with breaches of the code of conduct plays into Mr Johnson's hand and yet hurts his daughter the longer it goes on. My guess is that fellow classmates of Ms. Johnson would be uncomfortable airing their opinions out of respect for her situation. Mr Irwin is correct, however, when he points out that the students and families who have accepted the administration's judgement of their errors in the past deserve better than the we'll-wait-for-Mr-Johnson-to-decide response. Kudos to the Eye for keeping this in the light as even Wellesley Mass folks are beginning to take notice ( and the joys of summer make this all seem so remote.

  18. Kevin Hoover said:

    Jim, your reasoning relies heavily on the Tu Quoque logical fallacy. That others have or could engage in rhetorical transgressions has no relevance or bearing on Dan Johnson's plagiarism.

    Dan hasn't asked for forgiveness, nor offered any explanation whatsoever for his behavior.

    Isn't it incumbent on a school leader to provide leadership in an instance like this – an example of how to handle a mistake? So far, all we have is silence, a form of passive evasion.

    Your defense begs several questions:

    Do you 1. Consider the borrowing of someone else's verbiage without attribution acceptable? 2. Recommend the district and Dan's handling of the issue an acceptable example for the students? 3. Want Johnson to be forgiven and the matter dismissed without any redress by him or the district? 4. Want a different standard applied to students who might be tempted to steal the work of others?

  19. Jim Urton said:

    No one is excusing what Mr. Johnson did, or claiming he is"more special". He made a mistake. He's human. I am simply putting it into perspective. Plagiarism may not be acceptable when someone is attempting to benefit from it by receiving a better grade or some monitary reward. However, if the original author isn't making a case againt him the rest of you really have no business trying to punish Mr. Johnson. If the children that attended the event need a lesson, how about that lesson being: people make mistakes, even those "with power"? Perhaps the lesson should be one of forgiveness, not outrage, retribution, and righteous indignation.

    As for the comment about the high school no longer being able to reprimand students for doing the same thing, would they feel the same way if their Driver’s Ed instructor received a ticket for speeding or running a stop sign? Would they believe that if the instructor wasn’t removed from their position that the lesson for them is that they can disobey traffic laws with impunity? Would they, and the rest of you, demand that the instructor be removed from their position? I seriously doubt it.

    Finally, it’s not lost on me that no one has even commented on the first paragraph of my original post. No one has excoriated JFK for his plagiarism. No one claimed that he should have been impeached and removed from office for his “theft”, or called him a “liar”. In fact, most people still hold him in high esteem, regardless of his plagiarism during his inaugural address to the nation. Perhaps the students that witnessed Mr. Johnson’s speech can learn that even good people can make mistakes, because after all, we are human. The lesson can be as simple as, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”

  20. Kevin Hoover said:

    The point is, the students were called to account for their error. They weren't allowed to address it in their own good time, on their own.

    The school boardmembers took a week to respond, and when they did, simply directed comment to Dan Johnson, who isn't speaking, so far.

    That is the example and precedent being set by the school board. The message to students is that a double standard exists insofar as intellectual honesty, and they are keenly aware of this.

    The offense is twofold: the act itself, and the lack of ANY timely follow up.

    As for the damage, here is a quote from a student who wrote me this afternoon: "Members of the school board are supposed to be setting an example for us, and if they cheat or plagiarize, they are teaching us that grown-ups or people with power are exempt from the rules that the rest of us must follow. And that's not okay. It seems to me that if Dan Johnson is allowed to get away with plagiarizing his speech, that teachers at Arcata High can no longer reprimand students for plagiarizing either. Mr. Johnson isn't any more special than we are, is he? "

    Is he?

  21. Jim Urton said:

    One more question for Mr. Irwin, regarding those students you failed for plagiarism, did you also expell them from school, or did you allow them to resume their studies? I'm just curious whether you have a double standard.

  22. Jim Urton said:

    To those replying to my original post: yes, I'm sure Dan's daughter is proud of him, Mr. Cooper. Just like I am proud of my kids, even if they make a mistake. Mr. Ray, if someone "borrowed" something I had written and it helped one of those malnourished children have a better future, I'm good with that, even if I didn't get "credit". Mr. Lovell, I'm not sure what rule was broken that he "swore to uphold". Perhaps you can enlighten me? And Mr. Price, exactly what damage has this caused?

    And to the rest of you out there, including Mr. Irwin, calling for Mr. Johnson's head on a pike for what you deem an unforgiveable error in judgement, keep this in mind the next time you use poor judgement. I fully expect to see the AE article informing the rest of us that you have resigned your position. Otherwise you are simply full of hot air.

  23. David Price said:

    Jim, I don’t think that stealing someone else’s words, even with the intent of helping others, makes the theft of those words any less damaging. Regardless of what the plagiarist stood to gain – or not gain – by stealing someone else’s words, at the end of the day, plagiarism is not about the plagiarist. It’s about the person who’s work was plagiarized. I think that’s what is often forgotten when people try to excuse a plagiarists’ behavior as you have.

  24. David Price said:

    Not acknowledging someone else's intellectual output in a commencement speech is bad enough, but to not apologize or show regret reveals a real lack of character and integrity. Thanks for sharing Coach!

  25. Kevin Hoover said:

    Northern Humboldt Union High School District.
    Policies, Regulations and Bylaws.
    Public Statements
    Bylaws of the Board BB 9010.


    The Board of Trustees recognizes the rights of Board members to freely express their views and encourages open discussion of issues during the Board meeting. The Board believes that effective Board members have a responsibility to express themselves, whether in agreement or disagreement with the Board majority, in ways that promote the Board’s ability to govern the district.

    When speaking to community groups, the media, or other members of the public, individual Board members should recognize that their statements may be perceived as reflecting the views and positions of the Board. Board members have a responsibility to identify personal viewpoints as such and not as the viewpoint of the Board.

    All public statements authorized to be made on behalf of the Board shall be made by the Board president or, if appropriate, by the Superintendent or other designated representative.

    (cf. 9011 – Disclosure of Confidential/Privileged Information).
    (cf. 9200 – Limits of Board Member Authority).

    Legal Reference:
    35010 Control of district; prescription and enforcement of rules.
    54960 Actions to stop or prevent violation of meeting provisions.

    adopted: February 9, 2010 McKinleyville, California.

  26. Irma Lagomarsino said:

    Whether he broke the law is not relevant. What matters is the standards of conduct our community is willing to accept. If Dan does not apologize, or if the Board does not take appropriate action, than our Board will be affirming that an educational double standard is OK. If Dan does nothing, the Board must acknowledge that he was wrong and that they will not tolerate such behavior in Board members (just like for students). Otherwise, the Board is affirming that they are more interested in protecting a local businessman, in a position of power, than what is right, and what is wrong. Could there be greater irony that a Board member, who we rely on to ensure our standards of education are upheld by teachers and students, violated a universal and fundamental principle of education?

  27. Dave Heinle said:

    Well that is certainly a date that will live in infamy! It's not what you can do for your country, it's what you can do using someone else's words. Just saying.

  28. Brian Lovell said:

    As a student of the graduating class, I think what Dan did was disgusting. I have not talked to a single one of my friends who hasnt shared my opinion that if the school board lets Dan get away with plagarizing his work, then the school board better inform the teachers at AHS that they cannot punish students for plagarism either. Dan isnt better than the rest of us, when we mess up we have to face the consequences of our actions and so does Dan Johnson. I think he should resign and apologize.

    If I'm not special, Dan Johnson, then neither are you.
    -Grace Lovell

  29. Brian Lovell said:

    This is exactly the point! what message are we giving our youth.

  30. Brian Lovell said:

    Carol since my daugther is part of the class of 2013 , I can tell you that many members of the class are appalled at Dan's stunt. They seem to be resingned to the fact that powerful people can get away with anything. This is why I believe strongly that the people they trust most (parents) must speak truth to power. Dan must apoligize and then resign.

  31. Brian Lovell said:

    Not sure if Dan broke the law , but I do know that he broke the rules of the institution he has sworn to uphold.

  32. Harriet Watson said:

    Another isssue for me: Mr. Johnson wasn't supposed to be just making his daughter proud, his civic duty was to represent the school board which serves the whole community. Another ethical breach. Not quite as extreme as plagarism, but not ready for prime time either. It is fair to expect the adults in charge to meet the expectations set for students, if not exceed them and lead by example.

  33. Kevin Hoover said:

    Maybe the AHS students should try all turning in the same essay for homework. Will the school say nothing for a week, then leave it up to them to address the problem in their own time?

  34. Andrew Jones said:

    What happens when a lowly student does wrong? What happens when a wealthy community leader does wrong? What happens, or doesn't happen, now will be the real lesson for the graduates.

  35. Jim Urton said:

    "As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, not “What can she do for me?” but “What can I do for her?''" Anyone want to guess who it was that "lifted" that, changed some wording, and called it his own? Get over yourselves, people. The intentions were good, no laws were broken, and he wasn't trying to use someone else's work to try and get a better grade. He was just trying to impart to his daughter how proud of her he is.

  36. Ian Ray said:

    Our problems are Danmade; therefore, they can be solved by Dan. And Dan can be as big as he wants.
    For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small… county. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.

  37. Rob Walker said:

    Just in case you all missed that, David Navarre has nothing to say about the whole "My boss plagiarized a speech" deal. I wonder if he would say the same of a student…. just wondering…

  38. Carole Cress Crossley said:

    I'd like to hear what the students would like to see happen. They are the ones who had their important day marred with this speech.

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