In her commencement day speech last month, Mansfield School Superintendent Brenda Hodges turned to a theme familiar to anyone who has attended a high school graduation: change.
It was a little too familiar.
On Wednesday, Hodges resigned her position amid growing complaints that she had plagiarized a speech given by a Navy admiral to the University of Texas at Austin a month before. The superintendent denied she had plagiarized the admiral’s remarks, but she conceded she had taken some passages from another speaker and had not properly credited him.
“Moving forward, I do not believe the school system can continue to make the progress it has made if this issue remains a distraction,” Hodges said in a letter posted Wednesday on the Mansfield Public Schools website, mansfieldschools.com.
The announcement followed weeks of controversy in Mansfield sparked by an anonymous student who sent Hodges an e-mail soon after her June 8 speech, alerting her to rumors that she had plagiarized the remarks by Navy Admiral William H. McRaven. An online petition started, calling for Hodges to step down.
In his speech in May, available on YouTube, McRaven told a University of Texas at Austin audience that “if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people, just 10, then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.”
In her speech, Hodges said that if “every one of you changed the lives of just five people, just five, then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 400 million people.’’
Other passages were similar, as well. Initially, Hodges disputed the accusations, even as the controversy grew.
“I don’t think it rose to the level of plagiarism,” she said at one point.
Hodges said McRaven’s speech was about “a hundred times better” than hers and was around 19 minutes long, while hers lasted about four minutes.
She added: “This may be a teachable moment for the students. I think they’re listening and they’re paying attention to what they’re being taught. They’re hearing over and over again, ‘Cite your sources.’ ”
Hodges’ statement Wednesday came after the School Committee held two executive sessions to discuss the matter.
In her statement, Hodges continued to deny she had taken sections of the speech from McRaven’s and had instead, with permission, taken her core thoughts from a speech from a pastor’s talk at a baccalaureate address in her native Oklahoma a full year earlier.
“While the source of my speech has been clearly established, it does not excuse the fact that I did not credit him as the source. For that, I apologize,” Hodges wrote in her letter.
As to the similarities, Hodges said, “I surmise that a common speech template is available” because certain key phrases appear in addresses across the country.
Hodges, who has been superintendent for seven years, set her last day as Aug. 29 and said that afterward she will be receiving medical treatment for a “longstanding injury.” The first full day of school is Sept. 3. She said her resignation will be effective June 30, 2015; the school department would not discuss the timing of her resignation.
Catherine Saba, a 2013 Mansfield High graduate who gathered 300 signatures on a change.org petition calling for Hodges’s resignation, said she was satisfied with the resolution.
“I honestly didn’t have faith that the School Committee was going to do anything. I was genuinely pleased to hear that she was resigning,” Saba said. “People here are really in touch with what’s going on in the schools here, and that’s wonderful.”
Scott Cohen, a first grade teacher at the Robinson School, said many in the community were surprised at how the situation unfolded.
“Nobody is perfect,” Cohen said. “I would never want to be judged solely on my mistakes. I would never want to have all the good I’ve done forgotten, and I hope that’s not the case in this situation.”
Cohen, who is also president of the Mansfield Teachers Association, said his organization will work cooperatively with whoever is hired.
Town Manager William R. Ross said although some people raised some valid points, he was surprised at the level of vindictiveness.
Ross said that in his three years in the town, he has found Hodges professional to work with and said she was instrumental in joint initiatives involving the school and town.
“I’m sure going to miss her ability to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the community,” Ross said. “In this business, we have a saying that friends come and friends go, but enemies accumulate.”
School Committee chairman Michael Trowbridge said in an e-mail the committee plans to meet next week to discuss naming an interim superintendent and to discuss a search for a new superintendent.
Speaking on behalf of the committee in a separate e-mail, Trowbridge said he would not comment on any other details of the meetings and said the decision to hold executive sessions and not to comment was reached in conjunction with the schools’ legal counsel and was “in the best interest of the Mansfield Schools.”