Local News

School Board, Chairman Under Fire In Midst Of Plagiarism Controversy

Posted June 4, 2004 6:35 a.m. EDT

— Many commencement speeches may not be talked about for very long after graduation. That is not the case for one given recently by a local school board chairman.

Orange County School Board Chairman Keith Cook has admitted he plagiarized parts of the speech he gave at Orange High School's graduation. He stole remarks from a speech then-Clinton Cabinet member Donna Shalala gave six years ago.

Cook's speech has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

"The black eye's going to be there, and it takes a while for those bruises to go away, I guess," said Orange County School Board member Randy Copeland.

Cook said he is sorry, calling the speech a regrettable mistake. But the mistake has other board members fielding phone calls and answering e-mails.

"There's been a lot of conversation over the last couple of days, and my phone has been ringing off the hook," board member Dana Thompson said.

Said Copeland: "We've heard from teachers, parents and students, so it's widespread."

An e-mail blasts Cook by saying: "Mr. Cook is sorry about the mistake and apologizes IF it has caused serious harm. That sounds a lot like Janet Jackson."

Another reads: "How, as a taxpaying, voting parent, can I support a chair who doesn't have the basic skills to write an intelligent, inspirational speech?"

School Board lawyer Mike Parker said the board has a few options as it ponders what action -- if any -- to take against Cook.

"They could ask him to resign as chair," Cook said. "They could ask him to resign as a school-board member."

Or the board could go another route.

They recently adopted a code of ethics policy. As part of the process, members could choose to make a public statement by censuring Cook.

"If Keith doesn't make a move, we'll have to do something," Copeland said.

Cook has served on the board for 10 years and has spent two years as chair. He is up for re-election in July.

He said he has no plans to resign from the board and no plans to step down as chair, and he has every intention to run for re-election.

The school board's next meeting is Monday night. As of Friday, the issue of the graduation speech was not on the agenda.