The Oklahoma State Board of Education has issued its letter of censure of Oologah-Talala Public Schools’ superintendent and school board for “failing to take appropriate actions to protect students from potential harm.”
The formal reprimand, delivered this week ahead of Oologah-Talala officials’ expected appearance before the state board on Thursday, details the reasons the district was recently downgraded to the lowest state accreditation status a school may hold while remaining open.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister wrote that it was not just a coincidence that the small Rogers County school district had a rash of five cases of “sexualized misconduct with students” by teachers there during the last four years.
“It is apparent to the State Board that you have displayed a shocking disregard for students’ voiced concerns, no doubt contributing to an environment that discourages students from coming forward for help,” states the letter, which Hofmeister sent on behalf of the entire state board. “Your students — all students — deserve not only safety, but respect.”
The state board took the extraordinary action of putting the school district on accreditation probation “to provide accountability and much-needed change to students and families in Oologah-Talala Public Schools.”
“Would-be educators and school leaders who disregard students have no place in public education,” Hofmeister’s letter states. “If you are able to prioritize respect for students and work to ensure that this respect is reflected in the District’s policies and practices, this Board stands ready to assist you in building an equitable and supportive school culture.
“If, however, you are not prepared to undertake this work, we invite you to stand aside and make way for those who are.”
State education officials allege that Oologah-Talala Superintendent Max Tanner and the local school board “failed both your duties and your students” by not properly implementing laws, regulations, and policies designed to protect students from sexual misconduct by teachers.
And Hofmeister wrote that since state education officials began looking into the first four cases of teacher misconduct in Oologah-Talala late last summer, it “became increasingly apparent that a lack of urgency toward sexual misconduct and the exploitation of students was embedded in your leadership and administrative culture.”
“The Oklahoma State Board of Education publicly censures the members of the Oologah-Talala board of education, and District Superintendent Max Tanner, for your roles in contributing to a school culture in which student complaints were treated dismissively, even while five District teachers have faced the loss of their certification following allegations of sexualized misconduct with students,” reads Hofmeister’s letter.
“It is because of these repeated failures to act promptly and appropriately to protect students, and the ongoing failure to implement corrective measures with fidelity, that your District now holds a probationary accreditation status.”
Representatives from Oologah-Talala schools are now required to provide quarterly updates to the State Board of Education, beginning with Thursday’s monthly state board meeting at 9:30 a.m.
The meeting agenda calls for the update to be heard in open session. The video conference meeting will be streamed live on the state Education Department’s Facebook page.
Last week, the local school board put in place three new policies and moved out of the district’s athletic department the responsibilities for compliance with and response to complaints concerning Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment and sexual violence in educational settings.
Then on Tuesday evening, the local school board accepted Tanner’s offer of resignation, but it won’t take effect until June 30, 2021. Tanner and the board released a joint written statement afterward vowing to remain united as “a team” as they continue to face the scrutiny of state officials.
School Board President Don Tice declined to comment, and Tanner did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Not all of the cases of teacher misconduct cited by the state resulted in criminal prosecution, but all five did result in the suspension or revocation of the teachers’ credentials by the state board.
Representatives of the school district were first summoned before the state board in October about their handling of the first four cases of teacher “misconduct of a sexual nature involving students” over the last four years.
Hofmeister’s letter this week noted that one of those teachers had been issued at least four written admonishments and directives “regarding his inappropriate and offensive conduct with students, which ranged from verbal to physical incidents,” and the final incident was acted upon only after a student recorded a cell phone video of the teacher “with his arm around a student’s waist, appearing to stroke her back under her outer clothing.”
After Oologah-Talala officials’ appearance before the state board in late October, a concerned parent reportedly informed the state about a new case — this time of a high school girls basketball coach accused by multiple students of sexual harassment — that the local school district reportedly did not tell the state board about in a timely fashion.
“Rather than promptly reporting these matters and conducting an investigation, actions you had so recently assured the State Board that you would take if such allegations arose, you did neither,” Hofmeister wrote of the latest case. “This minimization of student complaints mirrored Superintendent Tanner’s November 2019 mischaracterization of one reported incident to the (state’s) own Title IX Coordinator as a ‘he said/she said scenario,’ even though the students’ accounts had already been substantiated. The State Board has reason to believe that superintendent Max Tanner, contrary to reason and despite his responsibilities as leader of the District, elected not to act upon his receipt of specific allegations of sexual harassment for at least 20 days.”
The State Board concluded that local officials had “failed both your duties and your students” in with regard to the federal Title IX, which requires school officials who have been made aware of alleged sexual harassment to “respond in a way that is not deliberately indifferent.”
“Failing to do so is a violation of federal education law, and may be grounds for potential liability,” Hofmeister’s letter stated.