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We now know why Decatur fired beloved clerk. Were these sufficient causes?

The firing Friday of a beloved Decatur High School employee -- one for whom affection ran so deep that news of her termination inspired hundreds of emails, a rally attended by graduates across the years and a public show of support by her colleagues -- was based on several factors, according to her attorney, none of which is likely to assuage her supporters.

Because the list released by Susan Riley's attorney David Hughes will not strike the average person as sufficient grounds for City Schools of Decatur to fire a 19-year veteran with exemplary reviews until a new manager this year.

Given the passion of testimony in Riley's favor at Monday's rally -- tearful students testified her comfort and counseling saved their lives and parents shared their children would never have survived high school without Riley -- the outrage is unlikely to abate in the face of the stated termination causes. Students and parents at the rally repeatedly called Riley the "most beloved woman" in the school.

Among the charges detailed at a meeting this week with Riley, her attorney and new Decatur Schools Superintendent David Dude:

  1. Riley took home an iPad overnight, one that was bought for her use and checked out to her.
  2. She failed to follow her new manager's job plan for her.
  3. She complained to the administration about how her co-workers treated her.
  4. And then Riley talked about the fact she filed a complaint.

As Dude told me at the rally, he was unaware of the "scope" of Riley's standing in the community and school when he dismissed her without explanation Friday; he may have not known that she not only helped many students who felt invisible in the school but she rescued faculty with technology problems. (As a clerk, Riley is an at-will employee without the due process rights accorded teachers.)

Someone commented on Facebook this whole mess reflects the corporate nature of school districts now, where leaders are not grown up within the system but found in national job searches, as was Dude who came from Iowa to Decatur only four months ago.

These corporate hires, said the commenter, arrive not knowing the history or the people, and this Decatur case seems a prime example.

After classes dismissed Wednesday, Dude convened a meeting to caution all the high school teachers not to discuss Riley's firing in class as he warned it was inappropriate and the City Schools of Decatur's reputation was at stake. He also said teachers may be asked to talk to an independent investigator -- yet to be named -- who is going to review Riley's firing in light of the community uproar.

So, Riley remains on paid leave. The community outrage over her firing led Dude to issue a statement on Sunday that he was revisiting the issue and putting her on the leave.

I asked City Schools of Decatur for a response to Riley's attorney's statement. Here it is:

There are a number of material inaccuracies in the press release prepared by Susan Riley’s attorney. The school system is not going to publicly correct those inaccuracies nor are we going to engage in a public discussion about this matter while under review. The school system will honor its promise to suspend the termination of Ms. Riley, to perform an independent, impartial review of the allegations that led to her termination, and to take appropriate action following the conclusion of that review.

We ask that all stakeholders exercise patience and give Dr. Dude a chance to complete the independent review he has committed to doing, and allow CSD to work with Ms. Riley and her attorney privately regarding this sensitive and confidential matter. In the meantime, Dr. Dude will work, with full support of the Board, to continue focusing our work on educating students.

Here is the full statement from David Hughes, Riley's attorney:

Since Friday, February 26, 2016 when she was initially terminated from the City Schools of Decatur (CSD), Susan Riley and her counsel, David Hughes, have requested to know the grounds for her termination.  Their requests had been rebuffed until now.


Yesterday afternoon, Superintendent David Dude informed Riley, a media clerk at Decatur High School, that her initial termination was based on allegations that she: 1) misappropriated school equipment by taking home an iPad that had been purchased for her use and was checked out to her; 2) failed to follow a new job plan given to her; 3) inappropriately complained to the administration about mistreatment of her by the co-workers with whom she worked;  and 4) failed to keep confidential a Human Resources’ investigation regarding her complaints.  Riley denies that she did anything wrong regarding these matters that would warrant her dismissal.   Dude now acknowledges that the information upon which he relied in terminating Riley is questionable and may have been false. 


Prior to her termination, Riley had complained to her supervisors and the administration about age-related harassment of her by co-workers.  One co-worker had continually stated and otherwise implied that Riley, who is 61 years old, should figure out a way to retire as soon a s she could .  After Riley complained, the conduct continued.  Riley was given a job plan that prohibited her from assisting faculty members with technical issues regarding media equipment, a function she had performed for years.   A job reclassification for Riley that had been approved under the prior administration, with increased responsibilities and greater pay, was summarily rejected by the current administration after Riley complained of the ongoing harassment.  When Riley inquired of the current administration, she was told that no paperwork existed relating to the job reclassification.  Riley attempted to demonstrate that the reclassification had, in fact, been approved; yet, her conversations on the matter are now apparently deemed a violation of an alleged Human Resources’ investigation.


The reason given yesterday by CSD for Riley’s initial termination is not credible.   Instead, it appears to be a mere pretext to cover for the harassment she experienced.   Now that Dude has suspended the termination, Riley is hopeful that the administration will do the right thing and restore her to her former job, with the reclassification she was promised.



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