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New Decatur school chief fires media clerk, ignites firestorm, then reverses. School board holds emergency session.


UPDATE Sunday at 8 p.m.: Decatur's communications director just sent me this statement from the superintendent:

Over the last two days, some significant accusations have been raised regarding the validity of the investigation, and resulting information, that led to the termination of Mrs. Riley’s employment. In fairness to all involved, I have suspended the termination and provided Mrs. Riley with paid leave while I bring a third party in to conduct a full and impartial review. Appropriate action will be taken based on the outcome of the review.

The Decatur school board is also behind closed doors -- meeting began at 8 p.m. -- to apparently discuss this controversy. The meeting is described as an emergency session.  Rally organizers say the rally is still on for Monday morning. 

Here is the original blog.

The emails and calls began Friday afternoon and have not relented all weekend. “The new superintendent of Decatur schools fired Susan Riley.”

Late Friday afternoon, new City Schools of Decatur Superintendent David Dude fired Riley, a veteran Decatur High School media clerk, sparking a planned protest rally Monday at 7:30 a.m. at the high school, a Facebook page and hundreds of comments, emails and calls in support from current and former teachers, administrators, parents and students.

Dude declined to give any statement other than, "From time to time in life, we are faced with incredibly difficult decisions. This situation was one of those times for me. Such a decision is not made without serious and significant consideration of all relevant information. Unfortunately, like many such situations, I cannot share the details that required me to take such a significant action."

From talking to Decatur administrators and teachers, the tensions appear to have begun with an effort by Riley to press for a job change from the media center to technology department amid new management in the media department, management that probably was not fully aware of how much more Riley was to students than a clerk.

I know Riley and her reputation because my children attend Decatur schools. It may be the Decatur superintendent will reveal a startling allegation against Riley that will defuse public outrage but school staff close to the situation and her former bosses say that would shock them.

Riley's former Decatur High supervisor of 11 years, Heather Newman,  said, "I can’t even fathom what could have taken place that would cause her job termination. There must be some sort of misinformed accusation that has caused this situation. It’s just surreal."

Lauri McKain Johnson, former Decatur High principal, began as a media specialist in 1999 and worked side-by-side with Riley. Johnson became DHS principal in 2004. "Having worked closely with her for 15 years, I am certain there has been a grave misunderstanding," she said.

I want to address the bigger issue here, one that transcends this individual case and that we often see when new leadership comes to a school district, a failure to know the players, the politics and the facts on the ground. In this case, a new leader saw a low-level employee who was demanding time and attention for something that probably did not appear critical to his change agenda.

I have also seen this in Fulton and DeKalb counties where new superintendents over the years either listened to a narrow range of voices or brought their own chorus of "yes" people with them. Despite all the rhetoric that students matter, they don't in many decisions in school districts. How adults get along with other adults in school buildings carries more weight than how they relate to students.

So, it is easy to understand the mistake the Decatur school chief made  -- failing to understand this clerk was doing something that mattered more to parents than any improvement plans or reorg charts. She was seeing the kids who felt invisible.

Here is a tiny sampling of what students are saying about Riley's role at their school:

•She wasn't just a 'media assistant.' She was MOTHER to that school. Every time I had to go to that library for any reason, I always made sure I went out of my way to say hello to her and talk for a while and I never felt unwanted or like I was burdening her at all if I wanted to talk to her. Even when she was busy, she would always make time to talk to the student there, all of which she loved, and they loved her as well. I could write some nasty things about the new superintendent but honestly, I'm sure it's not what Mrs. Riley would want.

•In a school system where bias had a natural place Susan O'Kelley Riley led the way in understanding and loving. A lot of success in that high school can be attributed to Mrs. Riley, and it's upsetting that future students will have to miss the opportunity of being helped by such a wonderful person. Mrs. Riley, I hope that you know that you made a huge difference in the lives of so many that walked through those halls.

•I just wanted to let you know that I still remember like it was yesterday the time you went out of your way to help me out after being put in ISS for eating lunch off campus. If you hadn't done that I never would have had the chance to run in the  state championships my senior year.

•Moving senior year was one of the hardest things I have been through but I couldn't have done it without Mrs Susan O'Kelley Riley. I can't tell you how many times I walked in crying to her office about all my bad days and how she would make them better. You are the reason I got through my senior year. You are the type of mentor kids should have during the tough high school years

•Back when we first met I was just a young boy trying to pass my classes and now im an Army Sergeant. You are the most caring, understanding, and helpful person at that school. Anytime I needed to talk to someone or needed help with ANYTHING you were there. I live New Jersey now and graduated in 2013 and just a month ago you helped me out when I needed an important document. You are a wonderful lady who truly cares for your students.

•She encouraged and was kind to us all. She spread love through the hallways at Decatur for almost 20 years. This is Decatur's biggest mistake. No one can replace that woman.


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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.