A Second Opinion On Dr. Ralph Plagman
By now pretty much everyone in Cedar Rapids has an opinion on Dr. Ralph Plagman, beloved principal turned pariah by the media, ousted after 49 years of service and the topic of discussion over breakfast tables across the city. Gazette readers have followed as Molly Duffy, fresh faced reporter, has diligently copied and pasted the various press releases from the district into news stories, dutifully copying the words for readers to skim over or argue about without reading on Facebook. But Ms. Duffy’s stories lack any context, and her refusal to examine the facts and the allegations on their face makes many scratch their head. Is Plagman guilty? If so, why isn’t he arrested? And why are so many people defending him?
To better understand this case, let’s lay out the facts based on Ms. Duffy’s reports.
What we know for sure is that in January, substitute teacher Mary Beth Haglin was assigned to Washington high school. She started teaching in the school on January 21.
Damn near immediately afterword, rumors swirl throughout the campus. On a day in “early February” an investigation occurred into these rumors. Both sides acknowledge that Plagman and associate principal Michael Johnson performed the investigation. Both sides acknowledge both the victim and the teacher denied any sex occurred. In an interview that would leave even the most seasoned defense lawyer banging their head on the table, the teacher admitted “At that time I denied everything.”
Here’s where things get murky. Two questions exist about this investigation; first why didn’t Plagman report these allegations to police. Secondly, why wasn’t a so called level-one investigator involved as is district policy?
The first question is easily answered; state law does not require school administrators to notify police of unfounded allegations of sexual misconduct by school district employees. School district code states:
“Complaints to the district regarding abuse of students by district employees shall be investigated promptly. When appropriate, the Cedar Rapids Police Department will also be notified.”
A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education elaborated to KGAN and stated:
“Iowa law includes no requirement that an initial allegation of sexual abuse of a student by a school employee be reported to the state.”
So we can easily answer the first question: why didn’t Plagman report this to the police? Because there were no allegations (the victim denied anything occurred) and there was no evidence.
Now many people point out, that the CRPD eventually charged Haglin with a crime for her misconduct. But, you must understand, the police have power that far exceeds that of a high school principal to investigate a crime. The police can subpoena email, facebook, cell logs, and easily prove things that a school administrator cannot. For Plagman to examine Haglin’s phone or facebook, for instance, Haglin would have needed to give him access. And Haglin never stated (nor did Plagman allege) he ever had that sort of access. So, in this initial investigation Plagman found nothing, got nothing, and therefore did nothing.
The next question, is why wasn’t a so called level-one investigator involved as is district policy? This answer is a bit murkier. Yes, district policy states that for any investigation of sexual misconduct a level-one investigator was required to perform the investigation. In a letter to the media, Superintendent Dr. Brad Buck states this as a matter of fact that “The District trained administrators on investigation techniques in September of 2015. The training that the District provided in September would support an expectation, especially for long term, experienced administrators, of the responsibilities they have to act in cases of possible physical and/or sexual abuse of students, Bullying and Harassment, and other more typical investigations that occur in schools.”
Let me translate this carefully crafted sentence from the CRCSD legal department into plan English for a moment. “In September 2015 we sent overworked district employees an email that there was mandatory training on some crappy website they had to do. No one did it. So we pestered people until they finally clicked next through a bunch of slides and checked a box saying they completed the training.” Anyone who has worked in any job knows how much what I just wrote is true. Do you read your employers complete sexual harassment policy each year you agree you did? Do you know by heart your companies “acceptable use policy” or memorize by heart the employee handbook? Notice how Buck says “would support an expectation” in the quote — this phrase I guarantee involved hours of work by communications and legal departments in school district to find just the right wording to be legally ambiguous but still imply something…
And things look even sketchier for the school district when you dig deeper. The training that that district employees went through states employees are to notify a “level one investigator” to perform any investigation into sexual allegations. Now, this sounds easy, right? But it turns out the district had no level on investigators, because in the same letter the superintendent writes, “When it recently came to our attention that our investigators required refresher training and recertification, the two staff members out of three who remain in the District immediately took the training and were recertified as investigators.”
Did Plagman know these investigators certifications had expired? It’s hard to say. But, what that means is that legally Dr. Plagmans investigation was just as legitimate as the investigation from these so-called level-one investigators would have been, because none of the people in the district were certified at the time!
We don’t know that these level one investigators would have come to any different conclusion than Plagman either. We can assume both the student and the teacher would have lied to the level one investigators, and the investigators have no more rights to subpoena than Plagman would have had.
On its face it seems that there wouldn’t be much reason to question this first investigation. Yes, district policy for a whole 5 months was to leverage a level-one investigator for sexual misconduct. Never mind the fact that the district had no level –one investigators, and only 66% of the ones who at one time worked in the district were even left — but still Plagman likely should have still involved them. Okay, but why are people so focused on this.
Well, something the teacher said seems to have captivated the media. In an interview on KGAN, the teacher stated that Washington High officials attempted to “cover up” her conduct. This notion is absurd. First of all, why would Washington cover this up? No one questioned the way they handled teacher Heather Adams who was fired, criminal charged, and sentenced to prison under similar circumstanced. And secondly, how would this substitute teacher, having worked there for all of 2 to 4 weeks at the time of the first investigation, know the motives of the school administration? Is she a mind reader?
Her delusions of grandeur only match her stupidity. The administrators weren’t covering anything up. If anything, Plagman was giving this new teacher the benefit of the doubt; unfounded rumors in a high school spread like wildfire. These allegations will follow a teacher throughout their career. Even false rumors can ruin someone’s life. I propose Plagman didn’t notify the district or write a report because he likely didn’t believe the rumors (why would he, the two people involved denied it and there was no proof) and didn’t want to ruin her career over it. Should the man be fired for not wanting to ruin a teachers life?
The rest of the case has been nitpicked to death. After these first allegations, by April rumors were at a full fervor, and a video surfaced of the teacher and student spending time together on a Sunday. No one denies what happened next, which was that the teacher was removed from Washington, the district was notified, and a full-fledged investigation was spun up. Did the district handle this correctly? Were there lapses in time between when things occurred, when they were reported, and when the police got involved? Certainly. But as anyone who works in management knows, with the allegations being made against this teacher, any of the meetings on this issue would have been driven by the district’s HR, lawyers, and other administrators. They may have asked for input from Plagman and others at the school but they would have been minimally involved, if at all.
Plagman is not responsible for this portion of the investigation, nor is he responsible for the fall out. Once turned over to the district, it’s their investigation. Plagman would have been taking cues from the lawyers and HR. He would not have been at liberty to, for instance, call the AEA and make allegations preventing this teacher from working elsewhere, until the lawyers agreed the investigation had concluded and she was guilty. Apparently the writers at the Gazette have never worked in a job in corporate America. Or maybe they’re just so fresh, they don’t know how the world works. You don’t get to stop someone from making a living over accusations.
With the facts laid out, I find it hard to fault Plagman to the level of demanding he resign from the district. What I do see is two things; first we are seeing a definite culture difference, between the people of Plagman’s generation, and the new millennial generation. Plagman’s generation believed in the notion of something called discretion, and they also believed in something called innocent until proven guilty. The same cannot be said for Millennials. These habitual “sharers” have nothing against posting photos of them getting drunk on a Saturday night online for future employers to see. And they have nothing against ruining someone’s career, over allegations that had no evidence, no proof, and no merit. The second thing I see is that the district is likely attempting to blow smoke to keep public attention away from their own botched investigation. The district appears to have choked and moved at a snail pace through the entire process. But little if anything has actually been said about this in the media. This was the topic of public conversation at first, when the teacher was first arrested… but the next day the district announced Plagman’s resignation to specifically change the narrative. This is communications and public relations 101. And it seems to have worked well. Because now everyone’s arguing about Plagman and not asking why the district took over two months to notify the AEA about the allegations (with proof – remember they saw the video) or why the district never notified police.