talihina public schools
Three Talihina Public Schools board members and Superintendent Jason Lockhart conduct a board meeting on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

TALIHINA — Residents in this rural LeFlore County town had already been waiting more than three years for the state to complete an investigative audit of Talihina Public Schools when Amber Stepp, the mother of a fifth-grade boy, posted on Facebook that a teacher had been bullying her son and using homophobic slurs.

Stepp’s September allegations triggered an Oklahoma State Department of Education investigation, added additional attention to a new school policy that split some classrooms by gender, and raised questions about why the citizen-requested investigative audit has not been completed.

Meanwhile, the Talihina Elementary School teacher whose remarks sparked controversy spoke with NonDoc last week about the situation.

“I did use a homosexual slur that I regret,” teacher Kevin McClain said. “I did not call a student that. It was taken out of context and it was claimed that I did, but I did not. But I will say that I apologize for using a slur. It is something that’s unfortunate that — I will say that when I grew up a long time ago it wasn’t realized how hurtful that slur could be. And I am aware that it can be very hurtful to people and their families, and I apologize for that. So I apologize for using that — I don’t think it’s appropriate now. (…) I will continue to improve. I personally know many GLBTQ people that I love, and I apologize to them as well.”

An Iraq War veteran who is retired from the U.S. Army Reserve, McClain is a Talihina native who holds a master’s degree in school administration from Northeastern Oklahoma State University. Despite the OSDE inquiry, McClain remains in his classroom at Talihina Elementary School, though the allegations against him have drawn criticism locally and nationally.

Nicole McAfee, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, said “words have power” and that a teacher’s use of a slur normalizes it for students.

“Almost 90 percent of LGBTQ+ youth report hearing homophobic, transphobic, and transmisogynist slurs at school, sometimes from fellow students, and sometimes from educators and school staff,” McAfee said. “Words have power. And specifically these slurs wielded at young 2SLGBTQ+ people lead to less sense of belonging, frequent absenteeism, and poor mental health including higher rates of suicidality. 2SLGBTQ+ youth in Talihina deserve the same space to foster their love of learning as any other student.”

‘OK, that’s a problem.’

talihina public schools
Amber and Jonathan Stepp speak to KFSM, a TV station based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. (Screenshot)

As the fall semester began, Amber and Jonathan Stepp mulled over their son’s claim that his teacher was yelling at him. Aware that a large class of elementary school students would be hard to wrangle, they accepted that a teacher might have to be harsh sometimes.

When their son told them that Kevin McClain’s yelling had driven him to tears, however, they became concerned.

“He came home, and he told us that his teacher had yelled at him to the point that it made him want to cry,” Amber Stepp said. “And we’re like, ‘OK, that’s a problem.'”

Parents and guardians of other students began to reach out to Stepp and her husband, concerned by McClain’s behavior toward their son.

One mother told them her child could hear McClain yelling from another classroom. Stepp said the grandparent of another student reached out to say her grandson was scared to go to class every day because of McClain.

“Her grandson was telling her how scared he was of McClain’s yelling — that it was giving him goosebumps just being in the class,” Stepp said. “And that McClain was leaning over this student to yell at our son and spitting in this child’s face while he’s yelling. And that he was so scared to turn around when he was being yelled at — this child was so scared to turn around because he was afraid he would see McClain choking our son.”

McClain is also a pastor at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Aubrey, Texas. He said the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church is aware of the situation and conducted its own investigation, which has now concluded.

Stepp said her son continued to report being berated, and he started using the term “queer” and other homophobic slurs at home. Finally, Stepp reached out to McClain.

In an Aug. 25 phone call, a recording of which was reviewed by NonDoc, McClain called the Stepps’ son “wonderful,” but he said he had been having issues with students talking out of turn, so he had been yelling a lot to “get them in the habit of listening.”

When Stepp asked McClain about her son’s use of the homophobic slur, McClain admitted to using the term in his classroom and recounted an incident from that week.

Kevin McLain, Talihina Public Schools teacher and Oak Grove United Methodist Church pastor.

“Two of the boys were wrestling with each other and one of them started yelling, ‘He’s touching me. He’s touching me,'” McClain said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, when he does that, you need to say, ‘Fag alert.” And then I said, ‘No, I take that back. You don’t need to say that.’ But it just made the point.”

Later in the conversation — part of which Stepp posted on Facebook —McClain recommended paddling the Stepps’ son.

“My advice is the next time he can’t control himself in the classroom, that he needs to be paddled,” McClain said. “And that he needs to be sent to the principal’s office and paddled.”

When Stepp asked McClain if he felt his language was appropriate, McClain said the situation would be different if he had girls in his class.

“As a parent, I would not feel bothered if it was my son,” McClain said. “If it was my daughter, I would feel a little differently. If it was my son in an all-boy classroom, I would feel a little differently. If it was mixed boys and girls, I’d probably be a little more offended. (…) If there were females in the group, it would be different.”

Fifth-grade students separated by gender

talihina public schools
Talihina, Oklahoma, is located in LeFlore County near the Arkansas border. (Screenshot)

McClain had no girls in his class because Talihina’s fifth-grade students were separated by gender this school year following unspecified “drama” between boys and girls. According to a Facebook post from Stepp, OSDE recently demanded the students be reintegrated. Some data exists suggesting early educational benefits to classrooms separated by gender, but other studies disagree, and the practice has spurred constitutional questions in America.

Talihina Public Schools Superintendent Jason Lockhart told NonDoc that the gender separation lasted only nine weeks, from the start of the semester until OSDE asked the district to reintegrate.

“That was done that way for disciplinary reasons, because of some issues we’d had with some students at fourth grade,” Lockhart said. “And our principal felt like we could address some things, maybe monitor some things a little closer in a classroom where we did not have the females and males together.”

Lockhart also said many parents approved of the move.

“They’re no longer having their kids come home and say that they’re having those problems,” Lockhart said. “So they see it as a positive. Their child is being protected a little bit.”

Stepp said she reached out to Lockhart about the events involving her son immediately after her phone conversation with McClain. Then, on Aug. 29, she and her husband met with Lockhart, McClain and the district’s Title IX officer, Rebecca McLemore, who subsequently resigned from that position nine days later.

According to records released by OSDE, McLemore is still the elementary school counselor. But in her resignation letter from the Title IX position, she wrote that the beginning of the meeting with Stepp marked her first notification of her additional role. After attempting to fulfill the federally-required duties of investigating the McClain incident, McLemore resigned “for the reasons… of not being properly trained, equipped, or qualified for the position of Title IX Officer.” She wrote that the situation had put her in “a place of both ethical and professional liability.”

At the Aug. 29 meeting with Lockhart, the Stepps demanded that McClain be removed from the classroom.

According to a recording of the meeting, Lockhart replied only that, “You’re not going to leave out happy today, then.”

Stepp attempted to appeal her case to the school board at a Sept. 6 meeting and was allowed to give a presentation of the incidents, but she said she received no response from members.

When it became clear to Stepp that the district would not help her son, she contacted the State Department of Education.

“The OSDE was recently alerted to alarming allegations regarding the actions of a teacher at Talihina Public Schools, as well as the school district’s compliance with applicable laws,” OSDE general counsel Brad Clark said in a statement to NonDoc. “Upon receipt of these allegations, the OSDE opened an investigation. Student safety and security is paramount in the learning environment, and the OSDE will not hesitate to take swift and appropriate actions to ensure all students have that.”

As the 2022 fall semester continued, the Stepps were faced with the choice of sending their son back to McClain’s classroom, switching him to the all-girls fifth grade class, or pulling him out of school. They opted to withdraw and homeschool their son.

From Aug. 29 to Oct. 6, Amber Stepp said the school gave her son no work to do, which she called a violation of his individualized education program.

They tried sending him back to school part-time, but Stepp said he was told there were not enough desks and was forced to sit on the floor. The Stepps eventually withdrew all five of their kids from Talihina Public Schools on Oct. 24 and are homeschooling them.

“It’s been an adjustment — just getting used to the homeschooling flow,” Stepp said. “But our kids are a lot happier. They really are a lot less stressed and (feeling less) pressure.”

McLain’s name is not listed in the district’s online directory. After a school board meeting Nov. 7, Lockhart said that, because McClain teaches only a few periods each day, he is considered an adjunct teacher.

Lockhart said the district has cooperated with OSDE’s investigation.

“Don’t believe everything you’re told,” Lockhart said. “This is from our school lawyer: If the parents would like to, in writing, waive the FERPA rights that their child has, so that I can answer every question, I would be happy to answer those questions. (…) I would love to give the whole truth out, that’s all I can say.”

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Four years later, audit ‘still a work in progress’

The incidents in McClain’s fifth-grade classroom have drawn new attention to a rural community already awaiting answers about its school district.

In 2018, citizens of Talihina — a town of less than 1,000 people in southeastern Oklahoma — successfully gathered 162 valid signatures to petition the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office to perform an investigative audit examining the district’s activities from at least Jan. 1, 2016, through June 30, 2018.

Petitioners specifically asked for the audit to cover several areas:

  1. Review use of district credit card for possible personal, unreimbursed expenses;
  2. Review all administrative and teacher certifications, salaries, and/or duties to determine compliance with state standards and district policies per position and possible nepotism in hiring/placement of personnel;
  3. Review extra duty contracts/compensation/certification/attendance including comparing annual Choctaw Nation grant funds to actual expenditures;
  4. Review receipting/expenditure of all district funds including general and activity funds;
  5. Review “weekend school” to determine if the district board authorized its implementation and its purported restricted use to reduce the number of recorded absences of certain students;
  6. Review District Impact Aid application to compare reported ESL students to actual district enrollment.

But nearly four years later, the audit, which is expected to cost the district between $45,000 and $90,000, remains incomplete.

“Because of our staffing shortage and a lack of proper resources, the Talihina Public Schools audit is still a work in progress,” State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said in a statement.

Lockhart has a different assessment of the audit’s delay.

“It’s lasted this long because they can’t find anything,” Lockhart said.

However, documents provided by OSDE show state officials gave Lockhart multiple warnings and guidance regarding his refusal to provide board members with adequate district financial information and his efforts to hire Kelly Gravitt as a principal, despite Gravitt not being certified for public school administration.

OSDE documents show that Gravitt eventually obtained an emergency certification, and he is still listed as the junior high and high school principal.

According to OSDE records, issues with Lockhart’s governance of the district came to light after a January 2018 board meeting, when Lockhart accused a former board member, Brian Holland, of bank fraud because Holland had requested district financial documents from the bank after Lockhart refused to disclose the information. In a letter, school administrators threatened Holland with criminal and civil litigation to “protect the school” and “to protect our employees against harassment and bullying, whether it’s from a board member or a community member.”

Subsequent communications within OSDE show that officials with the state department told Lockhart he could not withhold financial information from board members and that school board members are entitled to review all financial information regarding the district. Despite this communication, Lockhart continued to provide board members bank statements with some items redacted.

In a March 2018 story from 40/29 News in Arkansas, Lockhart also admitted to using a credit card that is in both his and the district’s names.

“It does list Talihina School for tax purposes only, listing me as a representative of Talihina Schools,” Lockhart said in the story. “There are no financial connections between that credit card and Talihina Schools.”

As those allegations came to light in 2018, Holland organized the successful petition to the state auditor for an investigative audit.

Stepp also told NonDoc that an official with the U.S. Department of Education has informed her that there is an ongoing federal investigation into the district.

(Correction: This article was updated at 10:10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, to correct reference to a county.)