Dear Decaturish – A call for compassionMary Rigger (left) and Lynne Norman crowd around a table to write Susan Riley letters during the Rally for Riley across from Decatur High School on Monday morning. Photo: Jonathan Phillips
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When we disagree with decisions made by those in leadership, there is an impulse to cast those people as evil villains, as caricatures of despots or conniving oil barons. We see this play out again and again in our national politics, in the anger and vitriol of our debates. I have followed the story of the termination of Susan Riley closely, and I have seen this impulse come out here in our community. I do not know Mrs. Riley, nor do I know first-hand the circumstances of her firing, but I understand that she is someone who is loved and respected by many. The uproar over her firing comes from a good place–it comes from the care and compassion we feel toward a friend or family member, and the mad that we feel when we believe they have been done wrong. I personally know many who share these feelings. I also know many who are disturbed by the accusatory, angry tone of the discussion. I am one of those people.
I am an employment lawyer, and I often represent individuals who have lost their jobs under troubling circumstances. In a small handful of cases, there is compelling evidence of unlawful discrimination–on the basis of race, sex, disability, or age, for example. Those, we fight aggressively. In another handful of cases, there is compelling evidence that the employee was clearly in the wrong. Those, we turn away. But, in the solid majority of cases, there is a complex mixture of factors that led to the termination, and it is very hard to clearly attribute fault to one side or the other. There are personality conflicts, struggles over leadership, conflicts over the duties of a job, simple misunderstandings that never get resolved, changes in business need, changing performance expectations, and myriad other factors. In most of these cases, once you peel back the layers, you can see where the relationship started to go wrong, and you can see where the parties could have taken a step back and resolved their differences, and you may lament that they did not. But what you generally don’t see is evil, cunning, or idiocy. You see fallible human beings, making decisions as best they can, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes getting it right.
Mrs. Riley’s supervisors, members of the CSD administration, members of the school board, our superintendent, are our friends and neighbors. They are not comic book villains. Just as many care about Mrs. Riley, many love and care about these individuals. These are people with families, people with values, people who struggle to do what is right. They are fallible, of course, as all of us are, and whether this particular decision was the right one is an open question. It is one that may never be resolved fully in the minds of every person. But, before we know all the facts, and all perspectives, on this case, I hope we will not assign to these individuals a presumption of wrongdoing. I hope we will not demand their heads on a plate. I hope we will treat them with compassion, recognizing that they now find themselves at the center of a very public storm, with all the attendant emotional and family distress that involves. I hope we can take a deep breath, put our pitchforks away for a moment, and give these individuals a chance to reflect, evaluate and do their best to make the right decision.
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