Amid sex charges, Altoona suffers its second school superintendent crisis

Daniel Peggs seemed to be just what the Altoona school district needed to rebound from the difficulties of recent years.

The youthful, energetic 32-year-old who began working as Altoona schools superintendent last July appeared to have the right combination of expertise, people skills and the upbeat demeanor to overcome feelings of anger and distrust left in the wake of the tenure of his predecessor as superintendent, Connie Biedron.  

Teachers and staff who felt frustrated by Biedron’s top-down management style during her six-years as superintendent said they felt empowered again with Peggs leading the district. He was open to their suggestions, they said, willing to try new, innovative approaches to improve students’ academic performance. 

During Peggs’ three years as principal of Altoona middle and high schools, teachers and others said he displayed a passion for education. He gained a reputation for being a straight shooter but fair, a person who was both a strong leader and approachable, someone equally at ease discussing curriculum and sharing a joke.

After years of fearing Biedron, teachers said they began to trust in the school district’s direction again, and to trust the man leading them. 

“After the tyranny that was Biedron, he was the breath of fresh air and the new start we all had been waiting for,” one teacher said of Peggs.

That sense of hope and trust came crashing down Thursday, when teachers and others learned that Peggs had been arrested on his way to school. He faces charges in federal court of sex trafficking of a minor and making child pornography.  

The indictment alleges that between October 2015 and May 2016 he recruited and maintained an underage girl, referred to as “Jane Doe 1” in the indictment, for the purpose of having her engage in a commercial sex act. Peggs also is accused of forcing the girl to engage in a sexually explicit act that was recorded on an iPhone in December 2015.

Peggs was arrested on his way to school Thursday, and he made his initial appearance in court in Madison that afternoon, during which he pleaded not guilty. At a U.S. District Court hearing Monday in Madison, Judge Stephen Crocker released Peggs on a signature bond as recommended by a probation and parole agent.

The Robert Kastenmeier U.S. Courthouse in Madison, WI (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Among the terms of his supervised release, Peggs must comply with multiple conditions, among them his confinement to an agreed-upon residence at all times. Court officials refused to release the location of the home, but sources familiar with Peggs’ case said he will live at a residence in Oregon, a Dane County community near Madison, while his case proceeds. 

Peggs also must receive permission to meet with his own children or any other minors. In addition, he is prohibited from using computers and social media and he cannot be on school grounds.  

Most often people like Peggs who are charged with sex trafficking crimes are not released while their cases continue, said Julie Pfluger, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting Peggs’ case. But Peggs’ release occurred in part, she said, because there is no evidence he has taken part in illegal activities since mid-2016. Pegg’s release also was facilitated by the fact probation and parole agents were able to find a home for him that met conditions of his release, Pfluger said. 

“This is an unusual case,” she said, “in that you have a relatively long time period, for three-and-a-half or four years, where there is no evidence of (Peggs) taking part in illegal activity.”

Peggs has had contact with the victim since mid-2016, Pfluger said, but because she turned 18 at that time, interactions since then are not illegal. Pfluger declined to release further details about those relations, but did note that Peggs has used multiple social media accounts related to those activities.  

The case is also noteworthy, Pfluger said, because it involves sex trafficking charges against a white-collar community leader. In her five years prosecuting sex crimes in Wisconsin, this is the first, Pfluger said, that centers on a school official.

“I’ve never prosecuted someone who has a legitimate job,” she said, noting her other cases have involved traffickers and drug dealers. “This case is definitely not a normal one.” 

‘Such a shock’

When Altoona school board President Robin Elvig first learned on Thursday that Peggs faced charges for sex trafficking a minor, she felt an awful sense of deja vu.

Elvig, her fellow board members, Altoona school staff, and community members of this tight-knit city of nearly 8,000 east of Eau Claire had endured challenges related to their previous school superintendent, Connie Biedron, who was hired for that job in March 2012. 

Altoona school board president Robin Elvig

Biedron resigned from that position in February 2018, part of an agreement in which the board sought her ouster after learning she had created a climate of fear and had lied about her role in the controversial firing of the high school athletic director. The situation garnered local media headlines and prompted months of difficult school board meetings and countless late-night conversations that left Elvig emotionally exhausted. 

The hiring of Peggs as superintendent seemed to do away with the problems left by Biedron’s time as superintendent, Elvig said. He built on the enthusiasm and charisma he had shown as a middle and high school principal in Altoona, and district teachers and staff felt empowered and energized, she said.

Those emotions have been transformed to stunned surprise and dismay with the charges against Peggs, Elvig said. 

“We are in shock and crisis mode,” Elvig said. “It’s still so hard to process this, to believe that it happened.” 

Elvig said she and other board members were unaware of any red flags in Peggs’ past that would have caused them not to hire him. Background checks did not reveal any problems, she said.

“(Peggs) is the last person you would have thought would be involved with a crime like this,” said Elvig, who is scheduled to leave the board in April. “We thought we had found the right person to take us to a better place. And then this happens, and it is so devastating.”  

Seeking support

Altoona residents are struggling with the news of Peggs’ arrest. The topic is the talk of the town. On Monday residents discussed it at Woodman’s grocery store, expressing shock and outrage. City Administrator Mike Golat said people have been hit hard by revelations about Peggs. 

“The entire community has been turned upside down by the arrest of Mr. Peggs,” Golat said. “Right now we all need to support the school in any way we can.”

Community backing is happening for Peggs’ wife Ashley and the couple’s four children. A social media post made Friday had raised more than $17,000 for the family by late Monday, along with a list of people willing to bring meals to the family that extends through the end of May.

But tough times remain. On Monday afternoon state Department of Criminal Investigations officers conducted a check of district computers, searching for evidence of Peggs’ possibly having used technology to secretly record students. The district will conduct its own investigation into Peggs’ activities, Elvig said. 

On Thursday, at an emergency meeting, the school board named business manager Michael Markgren acting superintendent. The board will proceed with naming a superintendent to replace Peggs.

In the meantime, board members, teachers and the Altoona community will continue to try to come to grips with a leader they saw leading the school district to a bright future and his fall from grace. 

“Things went from looking so good to being beyond bad,” Elvig said. “We didn’t think we would be looking for another superintendent again this soon, that’s for sure. Now we’ve just got to make the best of it and move forward.”