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New Decatur school chief gets earful at rally today for school clerk

After listening to a dozen speakers at this morning’s rally celebrate Decatur High School media clerk Susan Riley, new Superintendent David Dude probably wishes he had canonized Riley rather than fired her.

Because this was moving testimony.

A 2001 graduate and a 2016 graduate-to-be both described how Riley’s ministrations and support rescued them, how she saw their suffering and reached out to them when no one else at Decatur High did. A parent credited Riley with saving her son’s life.

Lauri McKain Johnson, the former Decatur High principal, talked about how she would complain about rude students in the library, and Riley would explain all the challenges in the child’s life that might be causing the bad behavior, saying sugar works better reaching recalcitrant kids than vinegar. No matter where a student was, “Susan believed the sky was the limit,” said Johnson.

Junior Alexander Hollins mistakenly tucked a check into a library book that he then returned. He described how Riley went to the storage book room and combed through piles with him to find it. Denzel Taylor, the senior class president, said Riley gave him the confidence to not only speak in front of people, but to audition and win a lead in a play.

University of Georgia sophomore Sarah Stubbs, one of the young organizers of the 7:30 a.m. rally, said she rushed back from Athens this weekend despite midterms and a paper due today at 11 a.m. to right what she considered a terrible injustice. (You can read more about the amazing Ms. Stubbs in this USA Today story.)

Until the school bell summoned them inside, about 40 Decatur High teachers dressed in black, stood sentry in front of the high school in support of Riley.

And, to his credit, Superintendent Dude came as promised and listened to speaker after speaker condemn what they deemed his abrupt and indefensible termination of Riley based on information he now says may be inaccurate.

Dude fired Riley late Friday afternoon and rescinded it Sunday, saying new information had surfaced so he was putting her on paid leave and searching for a third-party to review the facts. Dude told me he intends to consult with Riley on the arbiter as it is important “Susan is comfortable with the person.”

(One name being thrown out: Former DeKalb DA Bob Wilson, one of the two investigators hired by the state of Georgia to document the extent of the APS cheating scandal. However, Wilson counts the Decatur schools as a client so this presents a conflict that would not seem to meet Dude's promise of a fair and impartial review.)

How does a bright young school chief who arrived a scant four months ago end up on brisk morning listening to leading citizens, former school leaders, angry parents and upset students denounce him for firing the “most beloved woman in all of Decatur”?

Facts remain murky although there are plenty of theories. Riley never earned an explanation for her sudden termination Friday because she is an “at will” employee. Dude told me  attorneys advise against providing at-will employees with reasons. (Riley was fired with cause, which had people scratching their heads over what she could have done. Decatur's failure to tell her or the public what that cause is strikes me as character defamation.)

It’s clear a manager mounted a case against Riley. Speaking to Dude at the rally, he says he may have been misled. When I asked if he was lied to, he said it's possible, and, yes, there will be consequences if that's proven. While he knew Riley was valued, he said, “I did not realize the scope of it.”

So that raises another set of questions.

Why would anyone in Decatur Schools want to force out a woman, who, while paid a meager clerk’s salary, appears to be serving as a counselor, crisis intervention specialist, technology adviser and general ray of sunshine in what seems to be a building in need of some light? (Dude cited problems at the high school years in the making and that he intended to spend today at the school talking to staff.)

Theories abound, but mostly this mess appears to come down to a conflict between Riley and a new boss. That Dude did not vet the manager’s allegations before dismissing such a longtime and cherished employee ought to raise concerns.

As Decatur attorney and parent Doug Aholt told Dude at the rally, “We know Susan. We are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know you so we don’t know whether you deserve the benefit of the doubt.”






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