Schoolchildren in the St. Francis School District learn about plagiarism and the importance of academic honesty starting around fourth grade, said high school junior Derek Schumacher.

So when the student journalist said that when he learned that a school board member in the northern Anoka County district had admitted to lifting a blog post and submitting it as his own column in the Courier, district's monthly newsletter, "It completely shocked me that someone would do that, because they show us that that's wrong. It's taking someone else's idea and just using it for their own."

Last week, the St. Francis school board voted to censure the first-term board member. Matt Rustad made the motion and voted, along with the rest of the board, to censure himself. The move, he said, was his way of "taking responsibility, admitting to a mistake, as opposed to trying to hide it and sweeping it under the rug."

Rustad, 22, of Elk River, said he was doing research for a column for the Courier about paperless classrooms when he found a blog for the International Society for Technology in Education. The original text was a lengthy comment on a blog about paperless schools, written in 2010 by a technology specialist from a New Mexico school district. That item remains online, and is not identical to Rustad's column, but nearly so. Rustad added and removed only a few phrases to the original text.

In the days after the Courier was delivered to residents' homes early last month, the district office received several calls from people who said they had cross-referenced the column with the original blog post.

Rustad said in an interview Wednesday that he had spent little time in traditional schools, and that in home school he hadn't learned much about plagiarism.

He said he didn't view what he did as plagiarism, but that he had hoped readers would know whose work it was by a quote at the end of the column. The quote was from the original author, though readers might believe it was from an interview, not lifted from a blog comment. "I see how it would be viewed as that," he said. "It was ignorance. It was a mistake."

Beyond a mistake

At a contentious school board meeting last week, several board members said they thought the incident went beyond a mistake.

"This is a board of education that you sit on, and you represent this community and a lot of students," member Amy Kelly told him at the meeting. "What this is, is plagiarism. It's theft of someone else's intellect and their knowledge. It's stealing and it's wrong. Censure? I'm not sure it's enough. ... I would ask that he resign."

Longtime Board Member Harry Grams agreed. In an interview Wednesday, Grams called Rustad's action "a slap in the face to our public and a slap in the face for our students."

He described a conversation with his college-age daughter, who showed him a syllabus noting that the consequence for plagiarism in a St. Cloud State University class was an automatic failing grade.

The consequence is no less at St. Francis High School. In Glenn Morehouse Olson's journalism classes, plagiarism results in an F and removal from the school newspaper.

Morehouse wondered if Rustad had trouble thinking of what to write, and noted that she had previously given writing seminars for district administrators and would do so for board members, who are expected to write one or two columns a year.

Bad example for students

It sets a terrible example for students, she said.

"These are the people that make educational policy for us," she said. "It's that horrible thing, do as I say, not as I do."

Students in her journalism classes were shocked and outraged. One student is investigating the story for the next issue.

"I would say students are the first people to say, 'Wait a minute. You're holding me accountable for this, but you're not playing by the same rules?'"

How to handle a situation like this is up to each individual school board, said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. But he agreed that school board members are held to a higher standard.

"I would think that as an elected official in a school system, of course you want to be a role model of behavior," he said.

Still, opinion on the board isn't as unanimous as the censure vote. Board Member Suzanne Erkel theorized aloud that politics -- between new board members and those who have been around a long time -- are playing a role among those who are pushing for Rustad to leave. She would like to see the board move on.

"He said he made a mistake," she said. "Everyone in the world has made a mistake. He owned up to it. I don't know why you can't be forgiving, and if it happens again ask him to resign or vote him off."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409