clinton public schools
In a letter sent Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Bridges called a the controversy surrounding allegedly fraudulent messages sent from a teacher's Facebook account "unusual and upsetting." (Screenshot)

(Update: This article was updated at 3:10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, to include and reference a statement from Ashley Kelley that was provided by her attorney.)

Six weeks after social media erupted with outrage over screenshots of a racist Facebook message purportedly sent by a Clinton Public Schools teacher, no one has stepped forward to say they actually received the message, a request for a State Department of Education investigation has been denied, and the teacher has filed a police report and a protective order alleging that another woman impersonated her for the purpose of harassment.

The teacher, Ashley Kelley, has not spoken publicly about the matter, and neither she nor her attorney returned messages seeking comment and clarification prior to the publication of this article. Kelley’s harassment complaint to the Clinton Police Department against a former nurse named Casee Hughes is pending, and the screenshots of the alleged message — which makes racist statements about Indigenous and Black people — have been left in the comments of numerous Clinton Public Schools social media posts.

About five hours after the publication of this article, Kelley’s attorney provided NonDoc with a Nov. 1 statement she had submitted while seeking the protective order against Hughes, which was granted for five years beginning Nov. 29.

“On Oct. 14, 2022, at approximately 1:27 in the morning, a person stole my identity, created a fake Facebook account, and posted an untruthful and disgusting message for the sole purpose of destroying my reputation,” Kelley wrote. “I woke up to a nightmare! This was not me! I did not do this!”

Meanwhile, a Tulsa-based attorney attempted to use the screenshot to trigger an OSDE investigation via an HB 1775 complaint, even though she said she disagrees with the “very premise” of the law. But parents in the community have been told by school leaders that they cannot identify anyone who actually received the message Kelley is alleged to have sent.

“This matter is currently being investigated by our district, the Clinton Police Department, and has recently been referred to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations for fraudulent use of name and image,” Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Bridges said in a letter to parents. “To date, 32 days after this screenshot surfaced online, no one has ever been identified as actually receiving this message. If you or anyone you know has received this message directly, I urge you to contact myself and/or the Clinton Police Department.”

In his Oct. 24 letter, Bridges called the situation “unusual and upsetting.”

“Clinton Public Schools is committed to providing a safe, caring, and welcoming environment for every student,” Bridges wrote. “Racism and intolerance are unacceptable, and I am saddened by the post and what it represents — regardless of who is responsible.”

Questions center on Facebook account

As the purported Facebook screenshot went viral, the Clinton Public Schools teacher, Ashley Kelley, contacted police and reported that she did not actually send the message.

“I met with Ashley Kelley (…) who stated that on [Oct. 11] she woke up to messages on her phone regarding a post that was made on her Facebook account,” Clinton police officer Hagan Ard wrote in his report. “Ashley then showed me the message that was posted on her account and stated that she was not the one who made the post.”

The report names one suspect in the case, Casee Hughes, an “acquaintance” of Kelley who CPD recommended for two charges, one of which is “willfully use a computer to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.” The report does not specify the other charge.

In an Oct. 18 Facebook post, the Clinton Police Department said it “has been investigating a reported hacked and offensive Facebook post” and asked for anyone who received the message “from the original sender” to contact the police.

Nearly a month later, on Nov. 17, executive director of the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Colleen McCarty, alongside Okmulgee attorney Brenda Golden, filed a formal HB 1775 complaint to try to trigger an OSDE investigation, which they said would be more independent.

“I had heard that teacher was saying that she was hacked and that that was her defense, so to speak, but of course somebody in this situation is going to say that they didn’t send it,” McCarty said in an interview. “All we need to do is be able to see inside of her Facebook account if she sent that message or not. That shouldn’t be that hard, right?”

According to Ard’s police report, Kelley did show her Facebook account to officers. However, it is unclear from the report whether Kelley’s claim is that the message was never sent and the screenshots were fabricated, or whether someone had accessed her Facebook and sent the message on her behalf.

McCarty said there needs to be an investigation conducted from outside the community of Clinton because she said the teacher may have actually sent the message.

McCarty said Golden has been in contact with the parent who received the message, but that they are afraid to come forward for fear of “retaliation.”

Golden told NonDoc that she spoke to a family member of the parent who told her that the parent had spoken one evening in October with Kelley about an offensive comment she made to their child in class. That night, the parent received the racist message from Kelley’s Facebook account, according to Golden.

Golden later told NonDoc that the family has since moved away from the district.

The bizarre scenario has drawn additional attention to prior racial tensions in the 8,300-person community about 75 minutes west of Oklahoma City. Last year, Clinton Public Schools and Cheyenne and Arapaho leadership examined a reported incident in which a Cheyenne and Arapaho boy said other students held him down and cut his hair, sparking protests in the community. Bridges, the CPS superintendent, and Cheyenne and Arapaho Gov. Reggie Wassana ultimately issued a joint statement that the initially reported details about the incident were “inaccurate and did not occur.”

Aware of the October allegation against Kelley, American Indian Movement activist and Muscogee citizen Jacob Wind pointed to the 2021 situation in Clinton as evidence that the message could be authentic and a potential reason for any parent’s hesitancy to come forward.

“This is why our suicide rate is the highest,” Wind said. “Our youth suicide rate is the highest because they get treated this way in public schools. They’re not allowed to be who they are.”

Bolstering Kelley’s claim, however, is the protective order approved this week in Custer County District Court against Hughes. During a Nov. 29 hearing, Kelley’s attorney requested a permanent protective order, but Hughes’ attorney objected. Judge Donna Dirickson heard testimony and ultimately approved a five-year protective order prohibiting Hughes from having “any contact” with Kelley through Nov. 29, 2027.

‘Disagree with the very premise’

As questions surrounding the authenticity of the messages lingered, McCarty maintained that her HB 1775 complaint would be the best way to investigate the situation.

“Brenda and I decided, since you don’t have to have standing under (HB) 1775, to go ahead and ask, via this complaint, for an independent investigation to take place, because the parents have been so afraid of coming forward,” McCarty said.

Signed into law last year, the controversial HB 1775 banned the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender and has led to recent accreditation downgrades of Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools. Specifically, the law prohibits educators from telling students they should feel bad or inferior owing to anything related to their race or gender.

Gov. Kevin Stitt and incoming State Superintendent Ryan Walters have touted the bill as a ban on critical race theory, an academic concept taught in some colleges and law schools that presents race as a social construct and that racism has been embedded in legal systems and policies. But the text of HB 1775 and subsequent OSDE rules do not actually mention the term, and critics of the law have said it is too vague and contributes to a culture of fear for teachers.

Despite disagreeing “with the very premise HB 1775 was passed upon,” Golden and McCarty further explained their decision in a press release announcing their complaint.

“We filed a complaint under HB 1775 because this is speech by a public school teacher to a parent intended to ‘make a student uncomfortable about his or her race,'” They said in their release. “This is exactly the kind of speech that HB 1775 is intended to stifle. Even though the law has since been interpreted to protect white students from feeling uncomfortable about their race due to accurate historical instruction about difficult topics like slavery, race massacres, lynching, and Indian removal, the law also prevents overtly racist speech which is clearly intended to make a student feel ‘anguish’ about his race.”

OSDE executive director of communications Rob Crissinger said on Friday, Nov. 18, that the department would close the complaint soon “due to lack of evidence at this time and (to) allow law enforcement to proceed with their investigation.”

McCarty subsequently said OSDE informed her that it had closed the complaint.

As education remains a top issue in the state, the American Civil Liberties Union is leading a lawsuit challenging HB 1775 in court. McCarty and Oklahoma Appleseed also recently formed a legal defense fund for educators accused of violating HB 1775.

“Protecting students from feeling uncomfortable due to learning the truth is authoritarian at worst and creating an overly-sensitive generation at best,” McCarty said in the press release. “However, if we’re going to use HB 1775 consistently, it means holding racist teachers and administrators accountable in the same way we would hold a teacher accountable for accurately teaching history or for sharing access to free library books.”

Read Ashley Kelley’s protective order request statement

Thursday afternoon, about five hours after the publication of this article, Kelley’s attorney, Peter Scimeca provided a Nov. 1 letter written for the protective order process. The letter included a five-paragraph statement from Kelley, who said a clone Facebook account had been created to impersonate her.

She said she is “not capable of such revolting language” and that she has received “hundreds” of angry calls and messages:

On October 14, 2022, at approximately 1:27 in the morning, a person stole my identity, created a fake Facebook account, and posted an untruthful and disgusting message for the sole purpose of destroying my reputation. I woke up to a nightmare! THIS WAS NOT ME! I DID NOT DO THIS!

Unfortunately for this person, the people who know me, the students in my classroom, and my friends and family know I would never say something so vile. They also know I don’t speak that way.

I have received hundreds of messages, calls, and emails from people who don’t know me but are doing the exact same thing to me, that the message claims that I did to a parent of one of my students. I WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS BEHAVIOR ANY LONGER!

To the person(s) who are responsible, justice will be served. Currently, the Clinton Police Department, the OSBI, and the FBI are working on this case, including a sequence of events that correlate to the message. I truly believe all will be made known, and I pray the truth spreads like wildfire, just as fast as the lies have.

To my family, friends, peers, community members, and especially the students, I am truly saddened that you had to read such vile words, regardless of who wrote them. I also want to say thank you for the love and support that you have shown me during this difficult time and thank you for knowing that I am not capable of such revolting language.

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Read the Clinton police report