teacher certifications
Supporters and critics of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters hold signs and speak outside of the Oklahoma State Department of Education before a meeting of the State Board of Education on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

Amid occasional shouts and chants from the audience, Oklahoma State Board of Education members approved the permanent version of a controversial rule regarding gender designation on student records in a meeting today that featured the superintendent of Midwest City-Del City Public Schools accusing State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters of making incorrect statements about his district.

Additionally, board members revoked the state certification of one former teacher who is in prison after being convicted on three charges related to sexual abuse. Board members also suspended certifications for six teachers, sent revocation applications for eight people to a hearing officer and scheduled a revocation hearing in the controversial case of a former Norman Public Schools teacher.

“Today, this will be the most aggressive action the state’s ever taken against sexual predators in the classroom,” Walters told board members at the beginning of the meeting. “I want to be really clear to sexual predators — you will not work in Oklahoma schools. Today, we have 14 teachers’ certificates that will be on the agenda today that we will be going through. We will continue to take drastic and quick action against those individuals who break that sacred trust involving working with people’s children.”

The suspensions, revocation and other actions come one week after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters called a special board meeting for the sole purpose of suspending the teacher certificate of a former Western Heights employee who was allegedly messaging an online account belonging to someone he thought was a 15-year-old boy. The man has not been charged with a crime at this time.

The teacher certifications suspended or revoked Thursday belonged to a mix of teachers across the state, some of whom have been charged with crimes and some of whom have very little information online about them.

Board members revoked the certification of Dallas Ewton, a former Morris Public Schools teacher now imprisoned for sexual abuse convictions.

The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma announced July 7, 2023, that Ewton was sentenced to 15.5 years in prison for two counts of sexual abuse of a minor in Indian Country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian Country. He pleaded guilty July 7, 2022. Ewton’s teacher certificate was initially suspended at a state board meeting July 12, 2021.

The teachers whose certifications were suspended Thursday pending a formal hearing include:

  • Benjamin Hall,
  • Lauren Anderson,
  • Jordan Caldwell, and
  • James Miller, a former Braggs Public Schools teacher who was charged Jan. 4 in Cherokee Nation District Court with rape, forcible sodomy, sexual battery and destroying evidence. He was arrested by the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 4.

Two certifications for other teachers, Erin Overton and Kacy Katibeh, were suspended for “breach of contract with Glenpool Public Schools.”

Board members were told that the State Department of Education has pending applications to revoke the teacher certificates of eight other people, seven of which were referred to a hearing officer by the board Thursday.

Those applications are for:

  • Kimberly Coates, a former Perkins Public Schools third-grade teacher who was arrested and charged with public intoxication after she was allegedly intoxicated and drinking in the classroom;
  • Kristen Andrews, who is serving a nine-year prison sentence with four of those years deferred for driving under the influence and manslaughter;
  • Melissa Smith, a former Western Heights teacher who pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute;
  • Rhonda Carlile;
  • Stacy Dimarco;
  • Christin Covel; and
  • Devon Mitchell.

The eighth person, Ivy Reneau, voluntarily surrendered her certificate, OSDE general counsel Bryan Cleveland said.

Walters and the board also set a hearing date for Summer Boismier, a former Norman Public Schools teacher who resigned in August 2022 after making headlines for covering up her classroom display of books with red paper and writing on it, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” Boismier also posted a QR code in her classroom that linked to the Books Unbanned webpage of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Walters, who had not yet been elected state superintendent at the time, called for Boismier’s certification to be revoked and initiated proceedings to do so once he took office. At the time, Walters made numerous social media posts and other comments about Boismier, leading her to eventually sue him for defamation.

Boismier’s revocation hearing is scheduled for March 28 during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting that month. Boismier has requested that Walters recuse himself from the case, but he declined to say whether he would do so.

“I have not reviewed the motion yet,” Walters told reporters after Thursday’s meeting. “I’m not familiar quite with what the argument was there on that.”

Permanent gender rule approved

Largely without comment, board members approved the permanent version of a controversial rule Thursday concerning student gender identity and school records.

The rule prohibits school districts from changing a student’s gender designation on their old school records without State Board of Education approval, even if the student has obtained a court order changing their gender. School districts are allowed to comply with court orders changing students’ gender designations for records created after the order but are prohibited from changing records created prior to the court order.

The rule has already been in effect for nearly four months as an emergency. At their Oct. 26 meeting, board members used the emergency rule to deny record change requests from two districts.

One of the students in Moore Public Schools whose records were at issue during that meeting filed a lawsuit last month in Oklahoma County District Court seeking to block the rule. The suit was moved to federal court Jan. 10.

Filed against Walters and members of the state board in both their individual and official capacities, the suit alleges that Walters and the board violated the student’s equal protection rights by refusing to allow the district to change its gender marker on student records.

The plaintiff asks the court to enjoin the rule and asks for the court to award them a monetary judgement of at least $75,000 for the alleged deprivation of their rights.

“It’s really common sense,” Walters told board members Thursday. “And I’ll tell you guys — I’ve heard this from folks of all political backgrounds that we do not want these transgender games going on in our schools.”

Board members discussed the lawsuit in executive session but took no action on it.

Mid-Del Superintendent: ‘You’ve also disrespected me’

During the public comments section of the meeting, Mid-Del Public Schools Superintendent Rick Cobb accused Walters of making false statements about his district during a budget hearing Jan. 11 before the Senate Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee.

At that meeting, Walters said the district had misspent more than $500,000 of federal pandemic relief money on lawn care that was not allowed by federal guidelines.

But Cobb said Thursday that his district had repeatedly double-checked to make sure that they were spending the money the way it was allowed, and he provided handouts to board members with information on federal ESSER funds.

According to the guidelines Cobb explained, ESSER funds were allowed to be used on 20 different kinds of expenses, including “activities necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services of the LEA and continuing to employ existing staff of the LEA.”

Cobb said the district’s groundskeeping contracts fell under this guideline.

“So yes, we have included our contracts with the companies that manage our groundskeeping. Every year in which we have done so, this has been allowable. In fact, from the current fiscal year, your staff has approved this in our ESSER application,” Cobb said.

Cobb expressed frustration with Walters’ comments in front of the Legislature.

“If accusations such as these are already being made, I as the superintendent of Mid-Del Public Schools shouldn’t first hear of them during a Senate subcommittee budget hearing,” Cobb said. “You’ve disrespected my district. You’ve disrespected the hard working people in Mid-Del, who have always conscientiously, always diligently put in the hours to make sure that we are serving our students to the best of our ability with the resources we have and in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations. You’ve also disrespected me.”

After the meeting, Walters doubled down on his claims that the district misspent federal funds.

“(Cobb was) very defensive for someone who’s been caught misusing funds,” Walters said. “He’s been a terrible steward of taxpayer dollars to misuse federal funds, and our agency will hold him and his district accountable.”

Walters also said the budget hearing should not have been the first time Cobb heard of the issue.

“That’s a joke. Our federal programs people are in contact with districts every week. They’re very aware of their issues. You heard his lies today. They’re trying to cover it up. We’re not gonna tolerate it,” Walters said.

Walters talks advisory board, new secretary, signing bonuses

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters leads the State Board of Education in a salute to the Oklahoma flag during a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

Members of the audience broke into chants at times and shouted as people spoke in the public comment section of the meeting and as Walters shared his remarks with the board.

His remarks seemed to provoke some ire when he began that section of the meeting with a video from Chaya Raichik, the woman who runs the controversial Libs of TikTok account.

Walters recently appointed Raichik to OSDE’s “Library Media Advisory Committee,” a committee that department spokesman Dan Isett said is meant to advise the board on getting allegedly pornographic materials out of libraries. Isett also said the committee is made up of “parents, current/retired librarians, and English literature teachers.”

Isett and Walters have declined to say when the committee was formed or who specifically sits on the body besides Raichik. She recently posted about a Tulsa Union Public Schools employee on her TikTok account, after which several bomb threats were made against Ellen Ochoa Elementary School.

Raichik also attended a Western Heights board meeting in the weeks following revelations that one of the district’s principals performs in drag during his off-hours. Raichik told NonDoc at the meeting that she and others hoped the principal would be fired.

In the video shown at Thursday’s state board meeting, Raichik called it an “honor” to be appointed to an OSDE committee.

“Good morning, Oklahoma,” Raichik began. “Here’s my message to [the left]: We are going to take back our schools. We’re going to fix the schools. We’re going to remove porn from the schools, and you can’t stop us.”

Additionally, during his comments to the board, Walters praised Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointment of Nellie Tayloe Sanders as the new secretary of education.

“She has got a tremendous background of working on private school choice, but also she has done tremendous work in literacy, specifically with dyslexia,” Walters said. “We have had many conversations with her around our literacy programs, so she will be a great addition to the team. Again, Gov. Stitt showed a great emphasis on student outcomes and school choice. I think he did a great job with this and so we are very excited to work with her.”

Sanders will fill a position that has been empty since late July, when Katherine Curry resigned owing to the “political environment” of the job. Nuria Martinez-Keel of Oklahoma Voice later reported that Curry’s resignation came after she was unable to view financial information for the department.

Most recently, Sanders has been a member of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. She was one of three on the five-person board who voted in favor of authorizing St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. Two court cases against the school are pending in the state Supreme Court and Oklahoma County District Court, but if it opens, it would likely become the nation’s first religious charter school.

Sanders resigned her seat as a voting member of the board when she took her new position, but as education secretary, she will remain on the board in an ex-officio, non-voting capacity.

In Stitt’s press release announcing Sanders’ appointment, he called her “a dyslexic thinker and advocate” who has “first-hand experience navigating the school system as a dyslexic child and later as a parent.”

Sanders said in the same press release that she considered it a “privilege” to be appointed.

“In an era where one-size-fits-all education falls short, my mission is to revolutionize our approach, ensuring every child finds a pathway to success tailored to their unique needs,” Sanders said in the press release. “My goal is to empower parents with choices and support teachers in unleashing their full potential — moving beyond the constraints of politics and bureaucracy.”

Sanders is the wife of Mike Sanders, a former state representative who Stitt pushed to become the executive director of the Oklahoma Broadband Office.

After Thursday’s meeting, Walters was asked about a report from Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and Beth Wallis of StateImpact Oklahoma that said at least nine teachers who received tens of thousands of dollars in OSDE signing bonuses may have to pay back all or part of the money.

“This is exactly why we put in place clawback measures, because if any individual lied throughout the process, did not agree to follow the stipulations in the contract that they signed, we have been very clear from upfront we will claw back those dollars,” Walters said. “So what you saw was our accountability system work, like we said from the beginning.”

According to Palmer and Wallis’ reporting, many of the teachers being told to pay back the money were truthful on their applications for the program and were only told to pay back the money once the department noticed a problem on their application.