In Emotionally Charged Oklahoma Board of Education Meeting, Parents Demand Answers from Ryan Walters

by Laurel Powell

Watch Oklahomans Speak Out Against Ryan Walters here - Wire Photos Available here

Meeting comes one day after Supt. Walters directed schools to ignore Dept. of Education’s new Title IX rules, jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal funding

One parent was removed from meeting in handcuffs while her children watched

HRC’s Cathryn Oakley: “Understand this: If Oklahoma does not comply with federal civil rights law, it is choosing to invest not in the future of students, but in Ryan Walters’s political career at their expense.”

OKLAHOMA CITY – Today, in an emotionally charged Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSDE) meeting, nearly every public speaker used their time to sharply criticize State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters for his failure to make appropriate use of public funding, protect the state’s LGBTQ+ students, and keep Oklahoma schools safe. Their message was clear: Ryan Walters must be removed from office.

A speaker also read comments submitted by current and former educators and librarians who wished to remain anonymous due to the culture of fear and retribution that has trickled down from Walters and his OSDE. These comments spoke to ongoing attacks on inclusive classrooms, lack of leadership and resources from OSDE, a continuing teacher exodus, and offensive rhetoric from Walters himself.

In a dramatic escalation, during the public comment portion of the meeting, one parent who took the podium to call Walters to account was placed in handcuffs, forcibly removed from the building, and arrested by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol while her children watched.

Today’s Oklahoma Board of Education meeting was emblematic of the chaos that has overtaken Oklahoma’s schools under Ryan Walters’s so-called ‘leadership.’ To watch a parent removed in handcuffs, in front of her children, for demanding answers from their superintendent was heartbreaking and, I hope, a call to action for the majority of Oklahomans who have had enough of his divisive and harmful rhetoric and actions.

Laurel Powell, HRC Spokesperson

Cathryn Oakley, Senior Director of Legal Policy at the Human Rights Campaign, offered these remarks in the public comment portion of the meeting on Walters’ reckless directive to Oklahoma schools to defy new federal rules, potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding at risk:

“Mr. Walters, yesterday you directed Oklahoma schools to defy federal civil rights law.

I understand that your department may no longer include any attorneys, so please let me explain to you why that is a lawless, discriminatory, and devastating directive. In addition to Oklahoma’s constitutional obligations, Oklahoma is required to comply with federal civil rights laws, including Title IX. Last week, after three years of careful consideration and compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act, the US Department of Education issued final regulations, consistent with decades of legal precedent and the United States Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County, ensuring that schools understand that discrimination on the basis of sex includes LGBTQ+ youth.

Mr. Walters, members of the Board, should Oklahoma schools refuse to comply with federal law, the state will certainly be spending a fortune on lawyers, and it puts Oklahoma at risk of losing hundreds of millions of federal dollars in funding. As folks in this room know, less funding for Oklahoma education is the last thing Oklahoma needs.

Understand this: If Oklahoma schools do not comply with federal civil rights laws, it is choosing to invest not in the future of Oklahoma students, but in Ryan Walters’s political career at their expense. Ryan Walters, you are failing Oklahoma students. Members of the board - it is time to act. Doing the right thing by LGBTQ+ students is doing the right thing for all Oklahoma students.

Nex Benedict deserved better. Oklahomans deserve better.”

Erica Watkins, Regional Director of Defense of Democracy, used her allotted time to read statements from parents, teachers, and administrators who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from Walters and the Board of Education:

Instead of my words, I have words from current educators:

‘Since there are no substitute teachers available, I am unable to come to our state board of education meetings. I am very appreciative that our local districts hold their meetings during the evening… this allows Oklahoma families to be true stakeholders instead of creating social media videos spewing hate for those who are doing the work.

I am a straight, white, conservative Republican with over 25 years in education. Not all of our students come from a Christian home. Who am I to tell them they are somehow wrong or flawed because of such things? For god’s sake, do better, be better for our children.’

‘I am imploring you to please discontinue your insistence on making Oklahoma public education a partisan issue. I fear that we will continue to see a teacher exodus where teachers leave for states where the profession can flourish without divisive politics serving as a barrier.’

‘As a public school librarian, I am appalled at the rhetoric aimed at me by the state’s education leadership. I have been painted as a pornographer, a pedophile, and a groomer when all I want to do is promote literacy. I have seen my colleagues receive death threats when their words were shared without context and when false accusations were levied against them… I love my job, I love the Oklahoma school children I serve, and I fear for our children’s future and education when our state superintendent could be so self-serving and full of hate when the future of our children is on the line.’”

Nicole McAfee, Executive Director of Freedom Oklahoma, said in part:

“What I hear from kids around the state… I hear kids are afraid to use the bathroom. They don’t drink any liquid, at all, until they get home from school because they are worried if they are forced to use a bathroom that does not align with their gender identity, that maybe like Nex, they won’t be alive to come back to school. Nex Benedict, the student in Owasso whose name none of you have said out loud in this space, is not an isolated story.

There are trans students being bullied because of rhetoric you allow in this room month after month. There are trans students whose parents and teachers I talk to are afraid that they will not live to see the next school year. They are afraid that the words weaponized by their state superintendent will cost them their lives.

Are you willing to let them pay that price?”

April’s board meeting came as Walters faced more questions about mishandling of funds and harassment and bullying in Oklahoma’s schools. Under his watch, Oklahoma schools are in a race to the bottom of the national education standings (49th nationally in K-12 education), and with his recent refusal to abide by Title IX rulemaking, Walters is threatening millions in critical federal funding.

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