Ninnekah district
During the State Board of Education meeting Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, members placed the accreditation status of Ninnekah Public Schools under probation. (Megan Prather)

Oklahoma State Board of Education members voted unanimously today to place the accreditation status of Ninnekah Public Schools under probation following sexual assault allegations against former teacher and girls’ basketball coach Ronald Gene Akins.

Corrective actions for the district include the development and implementation of a corrective action plan, regular updates to the state board on progress and the appropriate support of the district’s new Title IX compliance team.

During the meeting, Oklahoma State Department of Education legal counsel Brad Clark discussed a school district’s obligations under Title IX, a federal law which outlines how education institutions must handle the topics of sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination. Clark said schools must designate a coordinator, ensure appropriate training, provide a clear and available complaint or reporting process, and provide supportive measures to students and staff.

Clark said these Title IX requirements did not exist in the Ninnekah district, located south of Chickasha in Grady County.

“I believe you will see there was a systemic lack of advocacy for students,” Clark said.

Hofmeister sent a letter (embedded below) to the Ninnekah Board of Education on Sept. 15 that informed the district that the state board would potentially take action on its accreditation status. The letter also criticized Ninnekah district administrators for not taking action six years ago.

“Had Ninnekah administrators responded appropriately to the allegations that local law enforcement alerted them to in 2015 regarding Ronald Akins and possible misconduct involving a student at another district, any incidents of harassment and assault that Akins subjected Ninnekah students to after that time could have potentially been prevented,” Hofmeister wrote.

Akins was charged with two counts of sexual battery and two counts of rape by instrumentation in Grady County District Court in June after three former Ninnekah Public Schools students accused him of sexual assault and rape. The students were between 13 and 17 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.

Since then, 15 former players on the team have come forward in a federal lawsuit against Ninnekah Public Schools, Superintendent Todd Bunch, high school principal David Pitts, former school employees and Friend Public Schools — the district Atkins worked for prior to Ninnekah. The suit alleges that the district leadership and staff knew or should have known about the abuse.

In August, Ninnekah Board of Education President Rusty Garrett and board clerk Scott Miller resigned. The board subsequently voted to suspend Bunch and Pitts.

On Thursday, state board members voted to suspend the educator certificates of Bunch, Pitts and Ninnekah Public Schools’ former Title IX coordinator, Charles Yackeyonny.

The state board also voted to suspend the educator certificates of Heather Nicole Bycroft and Timothy Van Etten.

Bycroft, a former first grade teacher at Bixby Elementary School, was arrested in September over accusations of producing child pornography with her husband. Van Etten was most recently a high school soccer coach and teacher at Muskogee Public Schools. The school district told the website MuskogeeNOW that Van Etten had been suspended pending an investigation into claims that he made inappropriate statements toward female students.

Board approves budget request

State Board of Education
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister discusses 2020-2021 state assessment results with reporters on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (Megan Prather)

The State Department of Education will submit a budget request of about $3.26 billion to the Oklahoma Legislature for Fiscal Year 2023, a roughly $96 million increase from the actual Fiscal Year 2022 appropriation. The Legislature’s FY 2022 appropriation was the highest in state history, and the OSDE has also received more than $2 billion in federal pandemic relief funding.

Legislative Analyst Nat Barrack presented the budget request to board members Thursday. (Members Jennifer Monies and William Flanagan were absent.)

“While it’s often challenging to project what those needs will be two years in advance, the following budget request is a step in the right direction,” Barrack said.

The budget request must be turned into the governor and Legislature by Friday.

Board members also heard a presentation about the 2020-2021 academic year state assessment results from Deputy Superintendent of Assessment, Accountability, Data Systems and Research Maria Cammack.

The presentation revealed a drop in student performance levels in math, English language arts and science. However, Cammack said context — including the pandemic and the local interrogation of the data by individual districts — is important.

“This last school year, we know there were some significant disruptions to schools and to students, families and communities. We also know, most importantly, that was not uniform across the state,” Cammack said. “Things looked very different in every district, in schools, classrooms (and) a student might have had a different experience. So, we don’t have a uniform way of thinking about the impact the pandemic has had on each child across the state.”

The average participation rate statewide for summative assessments for the 2020-2021 school year was about 91 percent. These assessments were suspended nationwide for the 2019-2020 school year owing to the pandemic.

Cammack told board members that the state generally has about a 99 percent participation rate, with federal regulations requiring states to have a 95 percent participation rate. However, the participation requirement was waived for the 2020-2021 assessments.

“When we think about instructional gaps, in a typical year we can assume kids have access to grade level content. This year we can’t make that assumption. We don’t know,” Cammack said. “This year is about giving that data back to schools to say, ‘You know more about this than we do this year, we can help describe this information, but we can’t draw inferences like you can.’ We are really working hard to help them describe that information locally with context from their communities.”

Overall, performance shifts showed 21.1 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on the math assessment in 2021 compared to 31.9 percent of students in 2019, the most recent comparable year of data. About 24.8 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on the English language arts assessment in 2021 compared to 33.4 percent of students in 2019. Similarly, 29.7 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on the science assessment in 2021 compared to 34.5 percent of students in 2019.

“We’re very concerned about the children that have had disruption due to the pandemic, and it’s not the same group of students in every school,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister told reporters during a press event Tuesday. “Some of the students who have not been assessed are federally protected student groups — our special education students, our students with higher needs, economically disadvantaged and those English learners. We want to ensure that all kids have an opportunity to learn and that they are in class face-to-face with a teacher who has the resources they need.”

Hofmeister said there is an opportunity to provide high-dosage tutoring for students in the testing subject areas of math, English and science.

“We need our districts to take every opportunity to work directly with families and to be able to provide some of that right there on site before and after school and definitely in the summers as well,” Hofmeister said.

A visualization of assessment results is expected to be provided on the OSDE website on Monday, Oct. 4.

Letter to Ninnekah Board of Education

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