Parents want answers in Washington High scandal, emails show

School board members write that there's more to the story, but leave parents guessing

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CEDAR RAPIDS — In the days after the abrupt exits of popular Washington High administrators Ralph Plagman and Mike Johnson, several parents and alumni pleaded for answers from school board members, records show.

“I am concerned and worried and terrified about my daughter’s education and future and I know that I am not the only one who feels this way,” Erica Gehrke wrote in an email to school board member Rafael Jacobo on Aug. 9.

It was her second email to him in six days after her first one went unanswered.

“I am tired of hearing the ‘personnel’ excuse,” she wrote. “Last time I checked we were involved in PUBLIC education funded by TAXPAYERS who helped ELECT our board. We need answers and we need them now.”

Included in more than 900 pages of records released by the Cedar Rapids school district after The Gazette filed a public records request are about 20 emails from concerned citizens to the seven board members the week after Plagman and Johnson departed.

While a few acknowledge a difficult situation, most were displeased with the board and the district — with some calling for resignations.

“Are you listening to the people you are serving? Have you heard us?” Washington High PTA President Jane Hutchins wrote Aug. 10. “We need some answers. I understand that information cannot be disclosed but there HAS to be something more you can give the public so that we can understand the gravity of what has happened.”

For the past six weeks, school district officials and board members have said they would provide as much information as possible once officials finished an internal investigation of the shortcomings that allowed substitute teacher Mary Beth Haglin, 24, to remain in classrooms.

An investigation by Principal Plagman and Associate Principal Johnson of Haglin’s rumored sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student wrongly determined the rumors were unfounded in February, and they did not follow district policies and procedures. A second investigation that began in April also did not follow procedures, though it led Plagman to ask Haglin to leave the school.

But then Human Resources Executive Director Jill Cirivello didn’t have Haglin removed from a central substitute teacher database until mid-June, allowing her to continue teaching in elementary schools.

Cirivello, Plagman and Johnson all submitted resignations over the summer. Haglin pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a criminal charge of sexual exploitation.

When the investigation ended Tuesday, the district released to the public only a brief statement. It mentioned employee confidentiality concerns, and then confirmed that administrators did not follow district policy in investigating Haglin in February and April, and that procedures weren’t followed in removing her from the substitute teacher database, which The Gazette had reported in July.

“I know everyone is very frustrated and confused,” board member Mary Meisterling said in an Aug. 3 email to a parent. “Unfortunately, the investigation still is ongoing so we are not in a position to comment. I will assure you there is a lot more to what you are hearing in the media and I suspect as the investigation comes to a conclusion, the district will respond.”

Board members did not respond to a request for individual comment after the investigation concluded. Instead, board President John Laverty issued a statement.

“Given the fact that the law requires the District to keep investigations and student and personnel matters confidential, we hope the community understands the constraints placed upon the District in providing information regarding this situation,” it said. “The desire of Board Members and District Administrators is always to be transparent as possible. However, in many situations such as this one, our desire to be transparent is significantly impacted by its obligation under the law to keep certain information confidential.”

While Iowa’s public records law prevents the school district from revealing personal information about the student involved, it shields only “personal information in confidential personnel records” for the public employees involved, according to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

“A CRCSD position of hiding behind an employee privacy statement is not going to be accepted by the Wash families and will have the appearance of cowardice and irresponsibility for the Superintendent as well as the CRCSD Board,” Washington parent Tom Campbell said in an Aug. 3 email to the board.

Records show Laverty and Meisterling responded to most emails they received individually.

In Gehrke’s second email to Jacobo, which doesn’t appear to have been answered, the Washington parent stressed that board officials are elected.

“I voted for you because I respect you and I know you have our children’s best interests at heart,” she said. “I need you to help me on this.”

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