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Decatur student: Bureaucracy shouldn't overrule humanity in clerk controversy

Several readers have sent notes asking the fate of fired Decatur High School media clerk Susan Riley. Her termination set off such shock waves and protests in Decatur that the new superintendent rethought the decision within 48 hours and rescinded his action.

But Riley is still suspended while Superintendent David Dude seeks a third-party review of the supervisor's allegations that sparked the firing and the community revolt.

In the meantime, the district and Board of Education have gotten hundreds of outraged calls, letters and emails. At a rally 10 days ago where teachers lined up in silent protest dressed in black, parents and students faulted Dude for having no idea of Riley's unofficial but critical roles at Decatur High -- champion of the underdog, comforter of the lost and lonely student and rescuer of technology-addled faculty. Riley's firing may surface tonight as Decatur Schools holds a community meeting on the future direction of the district.

I am trying to get more student voices on the blog -- see previous campus carry blog by Georgia Tech students -- and am happy to offer one today on the Riley saga.  (If you have students with something to say about education-related events in the news, send them my way.)

Duo-Wei Yang is a senior at Decatur High School. She is also an editor on the school's Convergence Media crew, and writes regularly for its magazine, Carpe Diem. She also shot the rally photos shown here.

By Duo-Wei Yang

The last time I saw Susan Riley was a Friday afternoon more than a week ago. As usual, she was full of smiles, waving goodbye cheerfully to every student and faculty members passing by the library.

Ironically, that was the Friday the City Schools of Decatur told Ms. Riley she would not be coming back to Decatur High School. she was the last person I ever expected to lose her job.

No matter the time or place, Ms. Riley affectionately asked how we were doing and how our day was. She always asked if we needed help.

On more than one occasion, she waited patiently in the media center for students feverishly writing papers until six in the evening, then pedaled her bike home quietly.

Her now dark and locked office is bitter to see.

I was relieved to see the school board is reconsidering the matter and Superintendent David Dude’s rapid response to the community outrage. Yet, we are still in the dark over this entire situation.

I understand the school board cannot reveal too much information. Legally, employers are also not allowed to discuss employee matters with the public.

Earlier this week, I attended the school board meeting to listen to supporters. To me, Ms. Riley’s case appears to be an example of a larger problem — the relationship between the school staff and the central office.

Parent Mary Rigger blamed the firing on school board procedures becoming overly bureaucratic and indifferent. “Last year, numerous complaints and concerns were filed relating to issues at the high school. The result was that they all were wrapped up in a shroud of secrecy,” she said. “It seems as though the central office has become a black hole where the voices, concerns and rights of faculty and staff get obliterated. We need to improve this system.”

Supporter and parent Tom Stubbs -- his daughter Sarah rushed back from UGA to organize a rally for Ms. Riley -- raised similar concerns, telling the board,  “We are not a bureaucracy. We are a form of family. We are more hug than handshake.”

As students, we see Ms. Rigger’s and Mr. Stubbs’ perspectives. Some administrators maintain a business-like attitude, only acknowledging the success of students through academic statistics, awards and accomplishments.

We realize the goal is to expand Decatur High and become one of the top 10 school districts in the nation. Unfortunately, this single-minded focus sometimes ignores individual problems of students and faculty.

Sara Norman, a 2014 Decatur graduate and a Rally for Riley organizer, noticed this firsthand while a DHS student. At the board meeting, she described her disappointment with a school system that offered great opportunities but that seemed to produce the opposite effect on the school and students.

“In the end, I learned the administration cares more about their rules and their growing school system than their students and faculty,” she said. “Meanwhile, they expect us to respect them while showing little to no respect or care for their students and their faculty members.”

Ms. Riley is a victim of this process. We don’t know the details of the charges and how legitimate they are, but we can all agree that her termination could have been handled better.

I and other students are still not happy about how this situation unfolded, and some take it harder because Ms. Riley was one of their only solaces at school. I spoke with Dr. Dude three months ago and he enthusiastically described how his first grader had “the best day ever” on the first day of school in Decatur, how he liked strolling the Oakhurst neighborhood with his family and how much he enjoyed walking to meetings at the schools since the winter weather was more hospitable than in his former post in Iowa.

If any administrators or the central office relayed inaccuracies or misinformation in Ms. Riley’s termination, Dr. Dude needs to hold them accountable. The underlying over-bureaucracy of the school system needs to be addressed. However, let's address it in a cordial manner that honors Ms. Riley's own conduct during her nearly two decades with Decatur High.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.