Students catch school superintendent plagiarizing part of commencement speech

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman (www.newton.k12.ma.us)
Newton Superintendent David Fleishman (www.newton.k12.ma.us)

(Update: Adding statement from school panel that fined superintendent)

The usual pattern for the detection of plagiarism is for an adult to catch a student copying from someone else’s work. But in Newton, Mass., it was two new high school graduates who discovered that the school district superintendent who spoke at their graduation had “borrowed” phrases from a commencement speech that Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick had just given.

In a June 23 special edition of Newton South High School’s student newspaper, The Lion’s Roar, newly graduated Jordan Cohen-Kaplan and Kylie Walters accused Superintendent David Fleishman of lifting phrases for his commencement speech from one Patrick had just given at Boston University, where Cohen-Kaplan had been in attendance. In a story titled: “Roar questions originality of Superintendent Fleischman’s commencement speech,” they laid out their evidence and wrote:

“It is disappointing and disillusioning to imagine that we can not expect the best from the highest ranking Newton public schools official especially on a widely-attended day designed to celebrate student achievement and serve as an educational capstone.”

What happened after the accusations were made public?

According to a publication Wicked Local Newton, the panel that governs the district schools, the Newton School Committee, learned about the accusations on June 27 and proceeded to have three meetings to determine how to sanction Fleishman for his behavior. Their decision, announced July 24, was to dock him one week’s pay, a little more than $5,000 of his total compensation of more than $275,000 a year.

Fleishman got off easy if you compare it with what happened to Brenda Hodges, the Mansfield superintendent of schools who resigned her post on July 16 after being accused of plagiarizing parts of a graduation speech she delivered from a speech that Admiral William McRaven had given to the University of Texas at Austin. She said, according to the Boston Globe, that she had been inspired by a pastor and did not lift phrases from McRaven. But amid calls for her resignation, she stepped aside. The Globe also said that if Fleishman had been caught plagiarizing a paper as a Newton South student, he would have gotten a zero.

The school committee issued this statement:

July 24, 2014

The Newton School Committee has discussed the recent issue regarding Superintendent Fleishman’s high school graduation speeches.  We have accepted the Superintendent’s acknowledgment to us and have determined that the appropriate action is that he be fined one week of salary.

We first became aware of the issue on June 27.  The School Committee and its Chair had several calls and meetings with the Superintendent and met in Executive Session in June and July.  We agreed with Superintendent Fleishman’s acknowledgment as to what, in retrospect, he should have done, and we determined an appropriate action.

David Fleishman has had a strong career as an educational leader, and we have seen exceptional growth and progress in our schools during his four years as Newtonís superintendent.  We are eager to move forward with David as the superintendent of the Newton Public Schools, and we look forward to many more years of working together.  We have many important opportunities and serious challenges ahead, and we are confident that David is the right leader to continue moving our system forward.

Newton School Committee

Matt Hills, Chair
Margie Ross Decter, Vice-Chair
Ellen Gibson
Margaret Albright
Angela Pitter Wright
Diana Fisher Gomberg
Steve Siegel
Ruth Goldman

Fleishman issued this statement:

July 24, 2014

As someone who writes a range of pieces that are distributed to the broader public on a regular basis, I am well aware of the importance of citing appropriate sources. ~I am also cognizant of the notion that public officials need to be as careful in their spoken remarks as they are in their written remarks-something that too often gets lost. ~ The recent article in the Lion’s Roar is an invaluable reminder of the importance of doing so and I am appreciative of their work in highlighting this issue.

In retrospect, I should have cited the Governor in my remarks as I did David McCullough Jr. ~In my judgment, it is essential that public officials not only accept critical feedback but acknowledge when we have made mistakes. ~Because I believe in accountability and transparency, I have requested that some type of action be taken by the School Committee and it be made public.

David Fleishman

Superintendent of Schools

The lifted phrases, which you can see in full here, include this one:

Fleishman had said: “Lastly, personal connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more incremental and complex than Twitter.”
Patrick had said: “Real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more gradual and elongated than Twitter.”

Wicked Local Newton said the two graduates had consulted with Brian Baron, chairman of Newton South’s English department, while working on the story and it quoted him as saying he was proud of them.

“I’m incredibly proud of Kylie, Jordie, and the entire Roar staff for speaking up and continuing the paper’s long tradition of outstanding student journalism. David Fleishman made a mistake, has acknowledged it, and has paid a price. He is an exceptionally talented educational leader, and I remain excited about helping him deliver a world class education to Newton students.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 25