The crowd at Smithville High School had already been told that suspended principal Rudy Papenfuhs was not going to have a public hearing as planned Thursday night when he walked through the auditorium doors.
Immediately students broke into a roar of cheers and squeals and then a cry of “Pappy! Pappy! Pappy!”
Most of the crowd of some 750 people had come hoping to see him make a case against the district’s long list of claims that the principal had persistently and willfully violated district policy in personal interactions with students.
At that moment, some 90 minutes after the hearing was supposed to have begun, he walked halfway down the aisle shaking hands, smiling and waving, making no comment on what had transpired.
But he knew then that he wasn’t coming back.
A little more than an hour later, the district and Papenfuhs released a joint statement that he had violated district policies “that would subject Dr. Papenfuhs to discipline up to and including termination.”
According to an email from Smithville human resources director Ashley Jones, the board accepted Papenfuhs’ resignation, “effective immediately.”
The joint statement called for the community to help get past the conflict.
“Papenfuhs, (Superintendent Todd) Schuetz and the Board of Education sincerely hope the community will join them in putting this matter to rest and turning attention to helping the school in its effort to meet the needs of the growing community,” the statement said.
Smithville High School’s community had come out in force to hear the district’s case against Papenfuhs.
But the board opened the proceedings only to vote immediately to go into closed session.
Papenfuhs has been on administrative leave since Sept. 9 after the district began investigating complaints of inappropriate student contact.
On Sept. 24, the district published its complaint, accusing Papenfuhs of violating district policy on many occasions. Most of those complaints were restated in Thursday night’s statement, saying that Papenfuhs agreed the violations had been committed.
The district said the principal took individual students alone to sporting events without any parent or other adults, gave students car rides alone, let students drive his car, bought a student a car, shared prescribed medications with students, shared inappropriate videos and texts, and put a student on his cellphone plan. One alleged text to a student included a comment that he “loved” him.
Papenfuhs has not been accused of any inappropriate physical contact.
Many Smithville students and parents have rallied in support of the principal, who they say is being punished for his caring and generosity.
“I’m disappointed in the whole thing,” said parent Barb Miner, one of many people wearing shirts with the handwritten message “Free Pappy” on the front. “Look at all the support. My God, it’s like all of the citizens of Smithville are here.”
Parent Zach Taylor, who also wore a “Free Pappy” shirt, expressed dismay, saying, “I know everybody will be disapproving if (Papenfuhs) moves on.”
At least some staffers, though, were concerned. It was two staff members who made a hotline call about the alleged sharing of a prescription medication that spurred the district’s investigation and that also is being investigated by police.
The district uses a standard policy shared by most districts that outlines inappropriate personal contact between educators and students. The policy intends to protect students from relationships that could become dangerous or abusive, and it protects the educators and their school from the appearance of wrong behavior and false accusations.
The politically charged debate over the fate of the principal comes at a time when the district is hoping to get voters to pass a levy increase Nov. 4. Some backers of the levy have been concerned that emotions over the Papenfuhs suspension could cost the district critical votes.