A former Lafayette public school teacher with a controversial past quietly resurfaces ' but some people can't forget what he did 10 years ago.
Wayne Arceneaux vividly remembers a run-in he had with John Paul Stoshak last December. Following his afternoon routes, Arceneaux parked his yellow school bus at Sam's Club to do some shopping on the way home. Inside the store, he saw Stoshak, an old acquaintance and former Lafayette Parish School System teacher. Arceneaux walked up to Stoshak, shook his hand and asked how he'd been.
Stoshak told Arceneaux that he was commuting to teach at a high school in Baton Rouge and said Baton Rouge had the best school system he's ever worked for. Then Arceneaux remembered that Stoshak had recently been a vocal critic of Lafayette Parish school bus drivers, so he tried to end the conversation and walk away, but Stoshak stopped him.
According to Arceneaux, Stoshak asked, "Aren't you one of the highest paid bus drivers in Lafayette Parish?"
Taken aback, Arceneaux told Stoshak that he needed to get his facts straight and walked off. But as he left the store, Stoshak followed him through the parking lot. Arceneaux walked briskly back to his bus, climbed up behind the wheel and got ready to crank the engine. But Stoshak was persistent. "He came right up to the bus," Arceneaux recalls. "And he told me, 'You know, those are some illegal wheel covers you have on this bus.'"
Arceneaux admits he lost his cool at that point, and told Stoshak he had a lot of nerve criticizing bus drivers, given Stoshak's own past with the school system. Stoshak, immediately defensive, insisted he had been victimized. "He told me he got caught on film having sex with a teacher," Arceneaux remembers. "And he told me, 'You better get your facts straight, or I'll own this $65,000 bus.'"
With people in the parking lot beginning to take notice of their dispute, Arceneaux stood up and told Stoshak to leave. He jumped back behind the wheel, pulled the bus doors shut and drove off. School board member Mike Hefner says Arceneaux called him that day and told him what had happened.
A few days later, Arceneaux was called into Superintendent James Easton's office and learned that Stoshak filed a police report against him. The report contains only one sentence: "Complainant stated that while in the parking lot of Sam's, the suspect threatened to fight him." With no offense other than an alleged threat, the police handed the matter over to the school system administration. Stoshak also personally brought a copy of the report to Easton, claiming Arceneaux threatened him.
"Needless to say, [Stoshak] wasn't happy with the incident," says Easton. "He's a pretty direct guy. You don't have to guess what he's thinking."
When Arceneaux explained to Easton what happened, the superintendent took no action against Arceneaux but issued him a warning. "Dr. Easton's only comment was that I was in a school bus," Arceneaux says. "And that even though I own the bus, people [who witnessed the incident] could have taken that as a school issue."
Arceneaux says his confrontation with Stoshak never got physical and recalls this exchange: "I made a comment about what he writes in the papers," Arceneaux says. "I told him, 'People that know you take it for what it's worth,' and he said, 'Well, this is America and we have freedom of speech.'"
John Paul Stoshak isn't a name most people recognize. It's been a decade since he garnered headlines in The Daily Advertiser, The Advocate and The Times of Acadiana for a litany of troubling allegations that prompted his abrupt resignation as a Lafayette public school teacher.
While he was never hired for another teaching position in Lafayette, Stoshak has remained active in the local community. He's been earnestly trying to get back on the Lafayette Parish Planning Commission, where he served from 1989-1993. He proudly lists himself as both a freelance writer for The Times of Acadiana and as a Louisiana state editor for Wrestling USA magazine on his resumé. Tall, burly and eager to please, Stoshak has an iron-grip handshake and a booming voice that carries throughout a room. The former high school wrestling coach keeps his graying hair neatly combed back; a regular at Red Lerille's Health Club, Stoshak mingles with influential city leaders and discusses news and politics.
Well-liked in many circles, Stoshak remains a controversial figure. And recently, as Stoshak has publicly criticized officials with the Lafayette Parish School System and the police department ' two entities he's had trouble with in the past ' his motivation and integrity are being questioned.
"He doesn't hold much credibility in my book," says longtime school board member Hefner. "Stoshak's had it out for the school system ever since [he left]. We would have terminated him, but he quit right before we could do that."
Former School Board President DeAnne Henke says she was shocked to see a guest editorial by Stoshak in The Daily Advertiser, especially writing about the school board. "I couldn't believe it," she says.
All of Stoshak's ostensibly objective articles contain a not-so-subtle slant. This summer, he wrote a story in The Times of Acadiana with the headline, "Should you be afraid of local cops?" In another instance, The Daily Advertiser allowed Stoshak to take aim at his former employer, the Lafayette Parish School Board.
In June 1996, Stoshak was a major news story when he was set to appear before the Lafayette Parish School Board to answer a litany of allegations against him, ranging from the negligent (showing television cartoons to his P.E. class) to the bizarre (sunbathing on the Ridge Elementary school campus) to the disturbing (picking up kids by their necks and locking one fourth-grade student in a storage closet). Former Lafayette Parish Superintendent Owen Bush had compiled a list of 18 separate alleged conduct violations spanning the five years that Stoshak taught at Ridge. Because Stoshak was already tenured, he could not be fired without board approval. (Former Ridge Elementary Principal Kirby Boudreaux declined comment for this story.)
Henke, who served as school board president at the time, says that Stoshak had, at the least, exhibited "extremely inappropriate behavior for a teacher."
"Teachers are supposed to be leaders," she says. "They're supposed to handle themselves in a certain way."
Henke says Stoshak always maintained his innocence, but he refused to go into any detail about any of the allegations. "I don't think that he recognized the seriousness of the inappropriate things that he had done at the school," she says. "He was totally oblivious to what the problem was." Stoshak called Henke at her home on more than one occasion to plead his case. "I had to keep him at arm's length," she says, "because it wasn't appropriate for me to be [privately] discussing the school board's case with him."
The school board's case against Stoshak came at the same time he was fending off criminal charges based on accusations brought by his ex-girlfriend, also a fellow schoolteacher at Ridge Elementary. She claimed that after she broke off a relationship with him, he mailed out copies of a sex tape he made of the couple to her new boyfriend and the boyfriend's ex-wife. Stoshak allegedly doctored the tape, blurring out his face and dubbing in crude commentary. Stoshak was indicted by a state grand jury on a charge of extortion. He was also charged with three misdemeanors for stalking, defamation and obscenity.
With mounting public pressure, Hefner says the board was prepared to fire Stoshak. "But by resigning, he never went through the hearing," Hefner says. "I mean, we had a hell of a lot of evidence, but it never came to a conclusion, never went through a trial of sorts to validate that." Adds Henke: "There was no love lost between him and the school board."
Stoshak's resignation meant that none of the allegations went on his employment record. Following his resignation, sources within the Lafayette Parish School System say he applied unsuccessfully to several schools in the surrounding parishes before landing a teaching job with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in 1997. He has since received tenure.
Henke and others within the Lafayette school system were surprised when they heard that Stoshak was teaching again. "Baton Rouge never called us for a reference," she says, noting that most reference calls go through the school system's central office. "It concerned me. Somebody [in Baton Rouge] dropped the ball."
Stoshak also escaped severe repercussions at his criminal hearing. The plaintiff's case was weakened when she claimed she was unaware that Stoshak filmed the pair having sex. Audio from one of Stoshak's tapes refuted that statement. Stoshak settled for a plea agreement where he pled no contest to a criminal defamation misdemeanor, and received $250 in fines and six months of unsupervised probation.
After the plea agreement, Stoshak's attorney, Sue Fontenot, told The Advocate that her client was looking forward to moving on with his life. "It was about a personal relationship that didn't work out," Fontenot said. "This will allow him to get on with his life."
Less than a month after the trial, Stoshak was arrested again and booked early New Year's Day with disturbing the peace by being intoxicated and illegally discharging a firearm, according to a story in The Advocate. A police spokesman told The Advocate that an officer first wrote Stoshak a misdemeanor summons after receiving a complaint of gunshots from his house. The officer then had to return minutes later because of another call from witnesses who said Stoshak began firing his gun again as soon as the officer drove away. Stoshak was arrested for firing a .223-caliber rifle but denied the charges. There are now no court records of the charges, meaning Stoshak was ultimately absolved of any charges.
In addition to his legal battles at the time, Stoshak was the subject of a scathing 1996 Times of Acadiana cover story (written while Independent publishers Steve May and Cherry Fisher May still owned the paper) that noted how Stoshak, in his first 10 years living in Acadiana, taught at nine different schools in five different parishes, sometimes lasting less than a year at a school. The article questioned the school system's method of checking with previous employers and asked how Stoshak could continually jump from one school district to another.
When first contacted by The Independent in August for this article, Stoshak was reticent about cooperating but did defend his right to free speech in a series of phone conversations, strongly expressing concern that anything regarding his past would be covered in the story. After initially agreeing to a formal interview, he later declined "on the advice of my editor and attorney." (Times of Acadiana Managing Editor Gene Williams declined to comment.)
"My past is my past," Stoshak says. "That was over 10 years ago. It has no bearing on anything that takes place now. This is now, that was then. I don't dwell on the past, and I move forward and I don't talk about what was. I talk about what is and what's going to be."
Stoshak did say that he was never fired from a school for his job performance, but that he used to have a drinking problem and made some decisions he regrets.
"I've worked hard to live down my past," he says. "I've turned a corner. People turn corners. People go through life and make mistakes and turn corners," he continues. "I have a gift for writing, and I put things forth that the common man can read, identify with and move forward with. With regard to my past, I've made mistakes. I've moved on from there and tried to be a service to my fellow man and my community, and I've moved on."
In a July 12 guest editorial that ran in The Daily Advertiser, Stoshak takes the entire board to task with one notable exception: board member Rickey Hardy.
Hefner says that Stoshak and Hardy have worked together on multiple issues, including challenging the pay of parish school bus drivers. That assertion appears to be backed up by some of Stoshak's writing.
"Why," Stoshak wrote in The Advertiser, "does only one Lafayette Parish School Board Member, Rickey Hardy, have the strength of character to seek out what is right and then speak out about it?"
In a more recent article that appears on the Web site lafayettepublicpolicy.com ' a site owned and operated by Lafayette Planning Commissioner Fred Prejean ' Stoshak covered a Chamber of Commerce forum for District 3 school board candidates that included Hardy. Incumbent Hardy ran against popular businessman and community activist Elroy Broussard and respected local dentist and former school board member Raphael Baranco. (Hardy was re-elected last Saturday.) Stoshak describes Broussard and Baranco as "arrogant," "out of touch," having "no depth or substance," "inexperienced" and "quick to pass judgment as well as blame." Stoshak heaps praise on Hardy, whom he describes as "a working class representative of the people," "sincere," and "a man who will do what is right at any cost."
Stoshak wraps up the article by stating, "Both Baranco and Broussard's statements were immediately parried and blunted by the incumbent, Rickey Hardy. Hardy works hard, stays informed and is not afraid to take on the status quo. He is a true representative of the people of District 3."
Because Stoshak's article on the District 3 school board race is presented alongside other news reports on the Web site from established news organizations including TV3 and The Advocate, it looks official. Of the 17 stories posted on the site's main page, Stoshak's is the only one that was never published outside of Prejean's Web site.
In all of his articles, including those printed in The Times and The Daily Advertiser, Stoshak's byline simply reads, "John Paul Stoshak is a freelance writer and teacher living in Lafayette," with no reference to his past association or troubles with the school system.
"I find it amazing," Hefner says. "If I did something like he did and I was caught at it and I've got a misdemeanor, I wouldn't show my face in public, much less start taking a high public profile criticizing others. But then, that's kind of how he is. He's got his reasons for doing things and whether they make sense or not to somebody else doesn't matter to him.
"He's an interesting person," Hefner continues. "He's extremely intelligent, but he's also one of those that can probably manipulate things to look a certain way. I think he's smart enough to manipulate people. Obviously, he's smart enough to manipulate the editorial board of The Advertiser."
According to Stoshak, he holds no grudge against the Lafayette Parish School System. "I've taken an interest in not just the school board," Stoshak says, claiming he criticizes other entities and public figures. "If you look at me on google.com you'll see me skewering [Lafayette State Sen.] Mike Michot and others." (The Independent Weekly could not find any such writings of Stoshak's online besides his Daily Advertiser and Times of Acadiana articles and letters to the editor.)
"The same way that I've slammed our school board here," Stoshak continues, "as a taxpayer, a resident and a voter. I have slammed my [East Baton Rouge Parish] school board. I've beat them up really bad. So there's no, what you're alluding to, vindictiveness or anything, even remotely close to that."
When told that some current school officials question his motivation, Stoshak says the reasoning behind that isn't hard to figure out.
"Obviously a school board member was pissed off and felt that I was making sense," he says. "That's hostility from a public official. And that's not supposed to be. That's another thing I rail against, him taking it personally. If he chose to run and be a public official then he should be ready to have his feet held to the fire, especially when there's problems that arise."
Stoshak also insists he has plenty of defenders within the school system.
"As far as animosity toward the school board," Stoshak says. "I believe that there's enough school board members along with the superintendent that can vouch, that will tell you, 'No, he's just straight up and out there."
One city official who recently vouched for Stoshak's integrity is Lafayette Planning, Zoning and Codes Director Eleanor Bouy. In an e-mail to the city-parish council in June, Bouy recommended the council appoint Stoshak to the Planning Commission.
"John has been on the Commission previously, and our staff is familiar with John personally and professionally," Bouy wrote. "John was very dedicated and participatory. He is independent and not afraid to make decisions on tough issues. John has a lot of common sense and will work hard. Some of these others may have good qualifications, but I am not familiar with these persons or their potential for our Commission."
Councilman Bobby Badeaux nominated Stoshak, but the council ended up appointing other candidates.
Two school board members contacted by The Independent, Kay Gibson and Judy Cox, declined to discuss Stoshak. Another member, David Thibodaux, whom Stoshak has frequently criticized in letters to the editor and other writings, would say only that Stoshak has a right to his opinion, declining further comment.
School board member Hefner, on the other hand, doesn't shy away from offering his opinion on Stoshak.
"He is a vindictive person," Hefner says. "And that's probably why some of us weren't shocked when he starts popping back up in the public light again with letters, criticizing the school system and what not. That's part of his vindictiveness. He probably felt like he'd laid low long enough for most people to forget who he was and what he did and what he was associated with. And probably to the common reader of the paper, he probably succeeded in that. Most of them probably don't know to connect it."
Insisting he's always been objective in his writings, Stoshak says he's motivated by a strong sense of civic duty.
"I take a stand because that's what I believe in," he says. "I believe that apathy doesn't serve anyone any good, and if you let the status quo be maintained then we continue to be a laughing stock of the United States of America. And I really believe there's more to Louisiana than that, and Lafayette in particular, where I make my home. I try and do the best I can to be as objective as possible to make people aware of what's taking place."
"Do you know what the percentage is of people in Louisiana who can't read or write?" he asks. "It's 70 percent. So I feel it's incumbent upon anybody who cares about where they live to be informed and to inform their fellow voters."
Aside from his writings, Stoshak inserted himself into the recent school board elections last month when he filed suit against District 4 candidate Charles Dennis. Stoshak had a strong case that Dennis was using a temporary residence in order to qualify to run for the District 4 seat against incumbent Ed Sam, and the lawsuit forced Dennis into withdrawing from the race.
Local attorney and longtime public school system activist Gary McGoffin was looking for a District 4 resident to challenge Dennis and initially had no luck. McGoffin says Cajundome Director Greg Davis and school board member Rickey Hardy then brought in Stoshak.
Unbeknownst to McGoffin, Dennis was the Lafayette Public School System's director of schools in 1996 when Stoshak resigned prior to the school board's hearing on Stoshak's 18 conduct violations.
Dennis says he did not directly handle the Stoshak case, but that the allegations did run through his office. "I was involved," Dennis says, "but I didn't bring any charges or make any decisions regarding [Stoshak]."
Dennis can't help but wonder if his involvement with the incidents of 10 years ago prompted Stoshak to come forward with charges against him now.
"What other reason would there be?" Dennis wonders. "I don't know that man. I don't see him. I don't have any dealings with him. I don't even hear his name. He doesn't hear mine. I don't live where he lives. He doesn't live where I live. My only experience with that individual was the experience involving some conflicts that he had with another employee many years ago at that school. I wasn't someone who was defending his behavior at the time."
"So all I could think about," Dennis says, "was that here was an opportunity [for him]."
"It was the right thing to do," McGoffin says. "I didn't know about [Stoshak's] history with the school board. The immediate issue was Charles Dennis, and the records confirmed to me that he was not a resident of District 4 and he should not be a candidate in District 4."
Regarding Stoshak's motivation for the suit, McGoffin says he felt Stoshak was driven by a genuine desire to do the right thing. Dennis' attorney, John Milton, says he called McGoffin to try and broker a deal. Milton told McGoffin that if Stoshak would withdraw the suit, Dennis would withdraw from the race.
When McGoffin relayed the offer to Stoshak, Milton says that Stoshak told McGoffin that no deal was acceptable. Dennis ultimately withdrew from the race prior to the court hearing, but still had to appear before the judge. "I think the plaintiff simply wanted to embarrass Mr. Dennis," says Milton. "There was no other reason to be in court."