By majority vote, the State Board of Education on Thursday refused to reconsider sanctions it handed down to two districts last month under a state law prohibiting certain conversations on race.

The board’s refusal followed a string of emotional pleas from community and district leaders in Tulsa and Mustang that revealed the toll the board’s action has taken on their schools. On July 28, both districts were accredited with warning for violating the provisions of House Bill 1775. 

“People move to Mustang because of the schools. My family moved to Mustang because of the schools in 1991. This hurts our community,” Mustang Mayor Brian Grider, said. “We were punished without this board’s willingness to listen to the facts and allow Mustang to be a part of the process.” 

Said Mustang High School Principal Kathy Knowles, “We are fearful to think a teacher at another site who is just trying to teach an activity over empathy, who made a mistake, is in danger of losing his job, losing his certification, of contributing to Mustang Public Schools losing their accreditation…That kind of fear is paralyzing.”

Board member Carlisha Williams Bradley’s motion to discuss reconsidering Mustang’s accreditation Thursday wasn’t approved by a majority of the board. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister voted yes, but board members Trent Smith, Sarah Lepak and Brian Bobek voted no. Board members Estela Hernandez and Jennifer Monies were absent. 

Bradley made the same motion for Tulsa Public Schools, and it failed in the same way.

In July, the board downgraded the accreditation of both districts in a move seen as largely political. Gov. Kevin Stitt, who championed the 2021 law as a way to unite rather than divide people, said recently “people are kind of blowing this out of proportion,” referring to the community’s reaction to enforcement of the law, according to The Oklahoman.

The board, all Stitt appointees except Hofmeister, bucked the state Education Department’s recommendation of “accredited with deficiency” and downgraded the districts an extra step to “accredited with warning” to, as Hernandez articulated, “send a message.” Accredited with warning is reserved for issues that seriously detract from the quality of the school’s educational program. 

House Bill 1775 restricts teachers and school staff from teaching eight specific concepts, including that one race or sex is superior to another, and that one race is inherently racist, and that any person should feel discomfort, guilt or anguish because of his or her race or sex. 

In Tulsa, a teacher complained under House Bill 1775 that a staff training in August 2021 on implicit bias “includes statements that specifically shame white people.” State board members didn’t listen to audio of the training before making their decision. Tulsa district leaders say the training didn’t violate the spirit or letter of the law and fulfilled a state requirement for professional development.

Mustang’s complaint arose out of a voluntary student activity called “Cross the Line” that is intended to build empathy and reduce bullying among students. District leaders say they resolved the issue within days. 

The Education Department is investigating an additional complaint under the law, according to department spokeswoman Leslie Berger. The district will not be identified until the investigation is complete. That was not discussed at Thursday’s board meeting. 

A high school English teacher in Norman Public Schools resigned early this week in a dispute with a district policy on classroom books related to House Bill 1775. Summer Boismier had posted a scannable code in her classroom that linked to free digital access to banned books through the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program, according to news reports. 

A district spokesman said the teacher “during class time, made personal, political statements and used their classroom to make a political display expressing those opinions.” The teacher was briefly removed from the classroom, but not fired. Boismer opted to resign.

Representing a group of students and educators, the American Civil Liberties Union in October filed a lawsuit over House Bill 1775 and asked a judge for a preliminary injunction, which would halt the law while the case moves through the court. Recently, lawyers for the ACLU filed additional evidence based on the board’s July decision on Tulsa’s accreditation. 

They argue the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, leading to censorship and a chilling effect on free speech of both teachers and students.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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