Gov. Kevin Stitt’s new appointee to the state Board of Education spent months sharing debunked COVID-19 medical advice, conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine content before hiding the posts from public view shortly after news of her new position became public Friday.
Enid resident Melissa Crabtree was named to the education board after Stitt abruptly removed board member Kurt Bollenbach, who the governor appointed in 2019.
Crabtree is a vocal anti-mask advocate who earlier this year founded a group called Enid Freedom Fighters, which had helped for months to block a mask mandate in the city and is now leading an effort to recall elected officials who supported the move. Enid’s mask mandate passed Tuesday on a third attempt, according to an Enid News story.
Stitt’s pick was condemned Friday by Democrats in the Legislature who criticized Crabtree’s views on masks and her lack of public education experience.
Information reviewed by Oklahoma Watch also shows that Crabtree frequently took to Facebook to share other controversial opinions, unsubstantiated medical advice and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 1,860 Oklahomans.
The posts were either deleted or hidden from public view just before noon Friday, but Oklahoma Watch was able to review and capture screenshots of several postings before that occurred.
This includes a post from last month where Crabtree, who frequently posts on the supposed benefits of essential oils, claimed to her more than 400 followers that zinc could “stop Covid (sic) from duplicating” and “will help a body not freak out at an illness.”
That advice runs afoul of the mainstream medical community, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which states that there is “insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of zinc” and that a federal panel has recommended against using zinc supplementation above the recommended dietary allowance for the prevention of COVID-19, except for clinical trials.”
The Mayo Clinic also calls using zinc to treat or prevent COVID a myth and that it is “unlikely to affect your immune function or prevent you from getting sick.”
In another post from July, Crabtree told her followers to seek out a viral video where a doctor falsely touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID cure. Multiple claims in that video have been debunked by fact-checkers.
Crabtree went on to write that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has “known that hydroxychloroquine worked for 15 years” and, without providing any evidence to back up her claims that “they are purposely distorting the studies and letting people die.”
Crabtree also posted multiple times endorsing the controversial strategy of achieving herd immunity without the use of widespread vaccinations. This includes a post from last week where she wrote that “once viruses are here, the way we get herd immunity is by people building immunity to the virus” and that she’d “rather have (the virus) than get the vaccine.”
Medical experts, including a team of Johns Hopkins researchers, have repeatedly stressed that allowing this to occur would cause a catastrophic number of deaths and would overwhelm hospitals.
On Sept. 28, Crabtree also shared an conspiracy theory-filled anti-vaccination article from a fringe blockchain-based blogging and social media website that warned the U.S. Department of Defense is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to detect COVID-19 through a implanted biochip that could “control our mind and bodies.”
“Keep your eyes open, and know that compliance is about so much more than masks,” she wrote along with the link to the article.
This claim, too, has been debunked by fact-checkers.
Reaction and Details on the New Pick
Crabtree declined to comment on this article and deferred questions to the governor’s office.
The Enid resident currently homeschools her two children. She taught special education in Tennessee from 1998 to 2002 and is currently an essential oils salesperson and administrative assistant to public speaker and author Heidi St. John, according to information she provided to the governor’s office.
In a Facebook post to her profile, Crabtree said she was “recommended to replace a member on the board” by someone who knows she believes “strongly in religious freedom and school choice.”
“I have the honor of serving as a guest of the governor and representing his interests on the board. I’ve been a supporter of his all along,” she wrote.
In response to questions from Oklahoma Watch, Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema did not specifically address Crabtree’s social media posts. But he said she went through the same application process all appointees must undergo with the governor’s office.
This includes disclosing her social media accounts when she applied for the position Nov. 16.
“Melissa Crabtree is a former teacher who is passionate about using her experience in the classroom to improve educational outcomes for all Oklahoma students,” Hannema said. “The governor believes she will be a great addition to the State Board of Education.”
Democratic lawmakers said Crabtree’s social media posts are further evidence that she is unqualified for the appointment.
Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, a former public school teacher, said it is “dangerous” to have somebody with these views overseeing the state’s education system.
“If you have your beliefs and if you feel those feelings, that’s fine,” he said. “But if you are putting out misinformation or disinformation, that is irresponsible.”
On Crabtree restricting or deleting her public Facebook posts following her appointment, Rosecrants added that, “if you are not going to be proud about what you feel, what are you trying to hide?”
Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, who also worked as a teacher before being elected, called on Crabtree to “clarify” her views. She said she is specifically concerned that the Facebook posts seem to show that Crabtree has anti-vaccination views that could threaten the safety of school children.
“Our son is immunocompromised and we have obviously chosen to trust the public school system to keep our children safe while they are learning,” she said. “And anything to undermine the safety in those public schools by encouraging students not to get their vaccination is very concerning on a deeply personal level.”
Crabtree will require Senate confirmation when the Legislature returns to the State Capitol next year.
House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore; and Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Broken Arrow, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.
Stitt Removes Former Pick
Last month, Stitt removed the chairman of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, John Harrington. Harrington, chief executive officer of Funds of Learning, supported terminating the board’s contract with Epic Charter Schools and was pushing to recuse two board members from those proceedings due to potential conflicts.
Stitt appointed to that board Brandon Tatum, founder and chief executive of CONNECTEdu and chair of the National Christian School Association board. He’s not automatically chairman. The board plans to elect officers at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, according to an agenda.
Bollenbach, who works for a small oil and gas operator, was in the minority of board members who supported a statewide mask mandate in schools, along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. The board considered the mandate in July, and again last month, but each time passed it as a recommendation and not requirement.
Hofmeister, in a written statement, said she will miss Bollenbach’s “bold leadership.”
“Kurt Bollenbach has been an exceptional board member whose legal acumen, breadth of experience and commitment to excellence have been of great value to the State Board of Education. He is a man of tremendous principle and integrity,” Hofmeister wrote. “Of course, I look forward to meeting his successor on the board, Ms. Crabtree, and anticipate a good working relationship with her.”
Bollenbach could not be reached for comment, but told the Kingfisher Times & Free Press he was surprised by the decision.
“The Governor’s office called me yesterday (Thursday) and told me I was being replaced,” Bollenbach told the Times & Free Press. “I didn’t really get a reason, but they thanked me for my service and were very nice. I’m sad that I won’t be able to finish out my term because there are four or five really pressing issues that I’d like to see through, but the Governor has the right to appoint and remove board members for any reason. For whatever reason, he decided I just wasn’t the guy for him right now.”
Democrats took offense at how Stitt made the Board of Education switch.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said the move runs counter to the purpose of state boards, which are meant to advise and provide oversight to the agencies they serve.
“The governor, while choosing to replace board members as they move away from his point of view, is not using the State Board of Education as a tool to advise or provide oversight to our education system,” she said in a statement. “He is using it to undermine the authority of Oklahoma’s elected state superintendent. This is another example of what has been the governor’s biggest success since being inaugurated, which has been his ability to centralize power, and he has been aided in this power grab by Republican legislators.”
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC