The $14,757 iPad: Shaky evidence led to media clerk’s firing, rehiring
This story has been updated.
City Schools of Decatur spent $14,757 investigating the allegations that led to the firing of Decatur High Media Clerk Susan Riley.
The decision to rehire her ultimately came down to how Riley used a $400 iPad purchased by the school system.
Decaturish reviewed numerous records given to independent investigator Jonathan Poole, an attorney hired to review the case for CSD. The evidence compiled against Riley surrounding her use of CSD equipment wasn’t as concrete as Superintendent David Dude believed when he fired her in February.
While the documents don’t reveal exactly what led to her reinstatement in April, Dude said the investigation cast doubt on allegations Riley stole an iPad from the school. Riley said she was allowed to take the iPad home, but her superiors accused her of not adding the device to CSD’s inventory so no one would notice it was missing.
Dude initially believed the word of her superiors, but the investigation cast doubt on the accusations.
“I think the biggest thing was, when I made the decision to terminate the employment I was under the impression there was certainty an iPad had been misappropriated,” Dude said. “In the course of the investigation, that became less certain. To me, that was a very significant piece. There’s potential criminal aspects of misappropriating government equipment. When that became less certain that to me was pretty significant in determining what the final outcome should be.”
Riley said that the allegations about the iPad were merely an excuse to fire her for other reasons.
“It was the only thing [they] could come up with,” Riley said. “It’s stupid. It’s like the stupidest thing.”
Decaturish received the documents in response to an open records request for the evidence given to Poole. Dude sought an independent review after a community uproar over Riley’s firing. She’s a beloved figure and her termination led to a rally on her behalf held across the street from Decatur High School.
The evidence reveals other inconsistencies in the allegations against Riley.
In addition to the iPad, there was supposedly an “audit” that uncovered “an abundance of missing items” from Riley’s department worth “several thousands of dollars.” This audit was mentioned in a background report Dude shared with Human Resources Director David Adams. When Decaturish asked for a copy of the audit, CSD said it did not exist. Dude said he never asked to see a copy of the audit before firing Riley.
“I have staff in place to conduct investigations like this. I make decisions based on their recommendations,” Dude said. “I don’t do the investigations myself. I don’t go through that process individually.”
He also said that there wasn’t an “audit” in the traditional sense of the word.
“I think you may be thinking of the audit a little differently than my understanding of what was done,” Dude said. “This wasn’t a formal outside third party auditing records. This was individuals at the high school reviewing records and noticing inconsistencies.”
Dude added that the informal review revealed “some missing iPads” and those iPads were located.
Riley said that the audit never happened.
“That’s just all stuff they made up to make it sound like they had reason to believe I had done that,” she said.
Riley had been fighting with her supervisors for months over her job responsibilities, emails and other records show. She said the former superintendent Phyllis Edwards promised her a promotion. She complained about mistreatment from her coworkers. Adams told Dude that Human Resources had investigated Riley’s claims and “determined the reality was that she was upset to have supervisors who laid out expectations and expected them to be followed,” according to the background report Dude shared with Adams.
“No actual bullying or mistreatment was identified,” the report adds.
When Decaturish asked for a documentation supporting the the HR Department’s investigation of Riley’s allegations, CSD said there wasn’t any. Dude didn’t ask for documentation of the investigation before firing her.
“I didn’t ask for any documentation on that, no. But I do believe that David [Adams] conducted an appropriate investigation at that point,” Dude said. “I don’t have any reason not to believe that.”
Riley’s attorney, David Hughes, claimed that his client was the target of discrimination by her coworkers because of her age. Dude said the investigation didn’t uncover evidence that Riley was discriminated against.
“I think there were some comments that were misconstrued, where she may have interpreted them to be comments about her age,” Dude said. “I don’t think they were intended that way, and the investigation didn’t bear out they were intended that way, and nothing came up about her age until after the entire process that came up after the termination.”
Another unusual aspect of the case was Dude’s direct involvement in the termination. He personally fired Riley, as opposed to her boss, Principal Arlethea Williams. Why did that duty fall on Dude?
The superintendent admitted that he shouldn’t have personally fired her.
“We haven’t had very good procedures of how we handle cases like this, and so absent those procedures I took on the responsibility of handling that,” Dude said. “We’re working through updating those processes because it should happen elsewhere than in my office. I want to be able to have a more objective position. If an employee is in that situation, and feels that there needs to be another review of the situation, I want to be able to serve in that role. If I’m the person actually terminating them, then I can’t serve in that role.”
Emails provided by CSD show that on the day Riley was fired, Feb. 26, Edwards – the former superintendent – emailed Dude regarding Riley’s promotion.
At 10:21 a.m., Feb. 26, she sent Dude an email exchange she had with Riley. In her email to Riley forwarded to Dude, Edwards said she supported her promotion, but added, “I don’t remember doing any official paperwork” signing off on it.
A couple of hours later, at 12:21 p.m., Dude sent an email to Riley asking her to report to his office at 4 p.m.
At around 1:50 p.m., Dude replied to Edwards and forwarded the reply to the School Board. He thanked Edwards for passing the email exchanges with Riley along, but added, “I would have preferred for you to choose not to involve yourself in an evolving personnel situation, but absent that I do appreciate you informing me of these communications.”
At 4 p.m., Dude fired Riley.
When asked whether Edwards’ email had angered him, Dude said it didn’t. He noted he had previously reached out to Edwards regarding Riley’s promotion.
“I think what I was getting across to her [in the email] was at this point we’re not talking about the promotion any more. I think that’s what I meant,” Dude said.
At the conclusion of the investigation, CSD made changes to central office. Now the HR director reports directly to the superintendent instead of the chief operating officer.
“I thought it was best that HR report directly to me to ensure that clear line of communication and oversight. It gives me a much better picture of exactly what’s going on in our HR department,” Dude said. “I don’t think it’s solely as a result of this investigation but it certainly influenced the value of having a HR director report directly to me.”
The HR director is also going to make recommendations about several CSD processes, including its termination procedure. The Technology Department is also reviewing best practices regarding CSD’s policies and procedures.
“We’re informally working on it at this point,” Dude said. “With summer, we’ve had a hiatus on that process because we do want to get staff input on how we do that, to look at our whole grievance process. At this point we haven’t formally made any changes. I think, informally, if something like this came up again we would probably handle it a little differently.”
He said the recommendations from the Technology Department are on hold until a new director is in place. After school starts, Dude said he will form a task force to look at CSD’s grievance procedures.
Shortly after Riley was reinstated, Decaturish had asked Dude what he had learned from the experience. At the time, Dude didn’t have an answer.
On July 12, he did.
“I think I’ve learned the value in making sure that we’re exhausting all avenues possible to ensure that we’ve thoroughly reviewed a situation like this, before taking action,” Dude said. “I would say Decatur is certainly a different environment than places I’ve worked previously and it’s been helpful to learn and adjust to the expectations of the community here, in terms of dealing with situations like this. It’s something where I think you have to learn every school district is unique …
“Without any due process or procedures, I think it’s valuable to me to have seen the differences in how things are approached. I think I’ve learned that things are done a little more slowly and deliberately here, which I think is valuable and I think that will be reflected in our processes going forward.”