As teachers rally around fired media clerk, Superintendent delivers stern message
This story has been updated.
Superintendent David Dude has been on the job for less than six months but is already at the center of one of the biggest controversies in recent memory at City Schools of Decatur.
On Monday, he attended a rally for a Decatur High media clerk he fired the previous Friday.
In the intervening days he reversed course, opting instead to place Susan Riley on paid administrative leave while promising an independent review of the situation. The community knows Riley. She was named a hometown hero in 2011 and was beloved by current and former students, staff and parents.
Dude is newcomer, having moved to Decatur from Iowa City. Up until Riley’s unexpected firing, he’s been a hit with the community. Some took Dude’s presence at the rally as a sign that he was willing to at least consider the possibility he made a mistake. He praised the students who organized the rally when he was interviewed by a reporter.
“I’m impressed by the students who organized this. It is testament to the school system that they chose to express themselves in a positive way,” he said.
Across the street at the school entrance, more than 30 staff and faculty lined up in a row to show their support for Riley. Many of them wore black and waved at the supporters across the street before they headed inside the school to begin their workday. Atlanta Journal Constitution education writer Maureen Downey praised DHS staff on her professional Facebook page.
“Teachers tell me reprisals are common in their profession so I applaud the Decatur High School staff members who stood outside the high school, across from the rally, wearing black to show their support of their fired/tentatively rehired colleague,” she wrote.
Two days later on March 2, Superintendent David Dude delivered a stern message to teachers at a faculty meeting: be careful. He warned them to not let the Riley case become a distraction in the classroom.
“My purpose in calling the meeting was to caution them against doing something that could result in personnel consequences,” Dude told Decaturish when asked about the meeting, held on Wednesday afternoon. “I emphasized that I hoped my comments only applied to a small group of them and that I don’t want anyone to use poor judgment that crosses the line into violating personnel policies or the code of ethics or, most importantly, negatively impacting student learning.”
People who attended that meeting, or who know people that did, said that some teachers were upset by the superintendent’s remarks. A few were in tears when the meeting ended. Dude didn’t dispute this.
“I have no doubt that some folks were offended by my remarks,” he said. “They were delivered firmly and to the point, without mincing words, and that is exactly what the situation called for. Many teachers thanked me for addressing these things that they were seeing as well. Another teacher shared concerns about the staff meeting with me. I applaud that and look forward to speaking more about it.”
According to sources familiar with the meeting, Dude also told teachers that Decaturish, following a tip, had contacted him about the purpose of the meeting prior to his arrival at Decatur High. Sources who were in the meeting said the superintendent looked annoyed that the media had been tipped off.
Dude said he did not tell teachers they shouldn’t speak to the media, and said he wasn’t annoyed at the media knew about Wednesday’s meeting.
“I most certainly did not tell them to refrain from speaking to the media, nor was I annoyed that they had; rather I shared that if they make such choices they should consider the impact on the climate at the high school, including but not limited to others’ perception of us,” Dude said. “I shared that we want DHS to be the No. 1 high school in the state and beyond and encouraged them to consider the impact their actions have on that outcome.”
After hearing about superintendent’s comments, Decaturish has decided to grant anonymity to any Decatur High teacher or staff member who wants to speak freely about the situation at their school in order to protect them from potential reprisals.
School Board Chairperson Annie Caiola, who was not at the meeting, said she supported the superintendent’s statements.
“I think Dr. Dude’s Facebook post reflects the fact that he applauded and supported the demonstration of support that was shown for Susan Riley on Monday morning,” Caiola said. “It was a respectful professional demonstration of people’s First Amendment rights. It was positive. It wasn’t negative. It focused on people voicing their support of Ms. Riley and that’s certainly respectful.
“I think in the past couple of days the positive focus has started to shift a bit. Dr. Dude had received reports … that folks at the high school have been preparing to do things or say things that would’ve been in furtherance of a negative demonstration. It ultimately distracts from the focus of what needs to be going on at the high school, educating the kids. My understanding is he went to a staff meeting and tried to refocus people on what the mission of our schools is.”
Caiola said she did not think Dude’s intent was to discourage teachers from talking about problems at DHS.
“I don’t think he tried to silence people and prevent them from voicing their opinions in appropriate ways, but the high school needs to be focused on educating the kids,” Caiola said. “Dr. Dude, the School Board and administrators, we are handling the situation with Ms. Riley, but the school needs to continue educating kids. That has to remain our No. 1 focus. The situation with Ms. Riley cannot distract form educating kids, and if that happens I think Dr. Dude will quickly bring their focus back to where it needs to be.”
The School Board also released a joint statement Thursday rebutting allegations raised by Riley’s attorney, David Hughes that his client was harassed by her coworkers because of her age. Like Dude, Caiola said some teachers were grateful for his message during Wednesday’s staff meeting, saying he’s received over a dozen supportive emails.
None of the teachers who appreciated what the superintendent said have contacted Decaturish.
The teachers who were willing to speak anonymously about the meeting said they were not heartened by what they heard. When Decaturish asked one teacher if they felt Dude had threatened their job, the teacher said, “I think there’s no other way to feel.”
Here is Dude’s full statement regarding Wednesday’s staff meeting at Decatur High.
In working toward continuous improvement in all we do, Wednesday afternoon I gathered the high school staff together to address some concerns. My purpose in calling the meeting was to caution them against doing something that could result in personnel consequences. I emphasized that I hoped my comments only applied to a small group of them and that I don’t want anyone to use poor judgment that crosses the line into violating personnel policies or the code of ethics or, most importantly, negatively impacting student learning.
I explained that Tuesday I had what felt to me like a very productive meeting with Mrs. Riley, and that I would move forward with the review of that situation as soon as possible. I shared that they (the staff) don’t have all the facts, and that I may not either–which is why I am having a third-party review. In the meantime, I encouraged them to refocus their energies toward teaching and learning.
I most certainly did not tell them to refrain from speaking to the media, nor was I annoyed that they had; rather I shared that if they make such choices they should consider the impact on the climate at the high school, including but not limited to others’ perception of us. I shared that we want DHS to be the #1 high school in the state and beyond and encouraged them to consider the impact their actions have on that outcome.
I closed with encouraging them to take a moment Thursday morning to think about where they want to direct their energies and to consider the same things we expect of our students–namely treating each other with dignity and respect.
I have no doubt that some folks were offended by my remarks. They were delivered firmly and to the point, without mincing words, and that is exactly what the situation called for. Many teachers thanked me for addressing these things that they were seeing as well. Another teacher shared concerns about the staff meeting with me. I applaud that and look forward to speaking more about it.
We have a team of phenomenal educators at DHS. Our staff may not always see eye to eye on things, and that’s OK. I’m committed to working through these disagreements, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations. And where disagreements have distracted from our main mission, I’m committed to refocusing our efforts to make Decatur High School the absolutely best high school it can be.
Editor’s note: Anyone who wishes to contact Decaturish, can do so by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 404-542-2562.
Writer Mariann Martin contributed to this report.