Back in December, we looked at the case of Michael Muñoz, the superintendent of Rochester Public School District in Rochester, Minnesota.
At the end of November, Muñoz sent an email to the staff of the district’s schools where he thanked the faculty, staff, parents and students of the district for coming together during a challenging time.
However, it was quickly discovered that the letter was almost entirely plagiarized from outside sources. In particular, it was copied from similar letters sent to school districts in Florida and New York.
Muñoz quickly apologizes and took responsibility for the plagiarism and, about a week after the story broke, the school board voted unanimously to suspend him five days without pay.
That seemed like it would be the end of the story. However, a parent of the school district has claimed to have found several more instances of plagiarism going back more than a year.
These include two graduation speeches, an additional letter and a social media post.
Muñoz has not commented on the new allegations. The school board, when approached about the allegations, responded to one publication by providing the same statement it released in December.
The next board meeting is February 2nd and this issue is expected to be taken up there.
While these new allegations certainly apply new pressure to Muñoz, it should also apply pressure to the school board. Though Muñoz clearly failed in his duties, the school board must address lapses of its own.
The New Allegations
The new allegations center around four separate items, each of which needs to be looked at individually:
- Muñoz’s 2019 Graduation Speech: Delivered on May 25, 2019, the speech appears to be almost entirely copied from three separate graduation speeches.
- Muñoz’s April 2020 Letter to Parents: A letter sent to families and students appears to be largely copied and rearranged from a letter sent to families in students in Langley , WA just a month prior.
- Muñoz’s 2020 Graduation Speech: Delivered on May 29, 2020, this speech appears to be largely copied from an address from another school district in Jacksonville, which was released just two months prior.
- Muñoz’s September 2020 Tweet: Finally, a tweet sent from Muñoz’s appears to be a near-complete copy of a tweet from a month before by Danny Steele, an educator and speaker from Brimingham, AL.
Other than the Tweet, all the cases show the same pattern of patchwork plagiarism. Muñoz takes either a larger work or a group of similar works and stitches together whole sentences and paragraphs. His rewrites and original contributions are typically minimal.
His tweet, however, is a complete copy with minimal rewrites. However, that is likely due to the brevity of the format.
In all these works, there is a clear pattern that shows Muñoz writing not by starting with his own words and weaving in the works of others, but by starting with the works of others and editing or changing the work to suit his needs.
This pattern fits what we saw in the Thanksgiving letter and indicates that this is his normal writing procedure for many of the things he pens. However, normal doesn’t mean right nor does it mean ethical. His students would almost certainly face stiff penalties for similar actions.
However, looking at the evidence, the real question isn’t whether Muñoz plagiarized, it’s pretty clear he did. The bigger question is why it took a parent pointing it out to find it.
A Deeper Problem
When the original story broke, Muñoz was quick to take responsibility for the plagiarism and apologize for it. However, it’s now obvious that apology was incomplete.
While he took responsibility for the plagiarism for which he was caught, he did not mention that he had written other works in a similar fashion.
However, this should not be surprising. Plagiarism is, ultimately, about dishonesty and there was no motivation to come clean about other past infractions. This was especially true since there was no guarantee that they would turn up at all.
Muñoz had no motivation to be honest and chose not to do so unprompted.
Though Muñoz certainly had a responsibility to come forward, his failing isn’t the largest. That belongs to the school district and the school board.
Facing a superintendent with one confirmed case of plagiarism, they could have and should have investigated his prior works. A cursory check of his speeches and prior letters would have found these issues.
Instead, in the week between when the allegations became known and when the school board voted on his suspension, an investigation should have taken place. At the very least, a spot check of his prior work should have been performed.
To make matters worse, according to the Post-Bulletin, at least one of the school board members indicated that they had seen emails about other incidents of plagiarism but that, since no evidence was brought forward, they only acted on the one confirmed case.
In short, the school board had one confirmed case of plagiarism and allegations of other instances but chose not to investigate further. Ultimately, it was up to a parent in the school district to find and report on the other instances.
Though Muñoz’s lapses in judgment are large, the school board’s response indicates systemic issues in how the district addresses plagiarism and ethical issues among staff.
Hopefully, this incident doesn’t just prompt the school board to take renewed action against Muñoz, but to also reevaluate their own policies when such allegations are brought to light.
Previously, in an article about uncomfortable truths about plagiarism, I said that “Most plagiarists are repeat plagiarists.” Time and time again, that statement is proved correct.
If you find an instance of plagiarism, you have to assume that there are others. In Muñoz’s case, it’s clear that the school board made no such assumption.
His case didn’t just warrant punishment, it warranted investigation and that never happened, at least not officially. Instead, the school board sat back and waited for a parent to bring it the evidence it should have been looking for all along.
Muñoz failed his students but so did the school board and the school district.
Hopefully, this case is s warning not just to other school officials tempted by plagiarism, but for other administrators on how to respond when confronted by it.