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EPS accreditation
Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Angela Grunewald and Andy Fugitt, the school district's legal counsel, speak to reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (Joe Tomlinson)

Facing a purported threat to the accreditation status of Edmond Public Schools, the district’s Board of Education voted unanimously at a special meeting today to file a petition asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to determine if standards enacted by the State Department of Education last year prohibiting broadly defined “pornography” and “sexualized content” in library books are valid under state law. Attorney General Gentner Drummond has already issued a non-binding opinion saying the blanket authority cited to create the controversial agency rules was inapplicable, but EPS’ filing could force a court to adjudicate the question.

At a press conference following Tuesday’s special meeting, EPS Superintendent Angela Grunewald said the court filing comes after OSDE sent a letter to EPS on Jan. 19 ordering the district to remove The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini from its high school libraries. Both books are popular across the country in high school English classes, but each has drawn criticism for depictions of sexual assault and rape.

Grunewald said OSDE gave the district 14 days to remove the books or defend its decision not to before the State Board of Education at a meeting Thursday. In addition to asking the court for an opinion on whether the standards are valid, the district also asked for an emergency stay on all administrative proceedings against the district until the matter is resolved.

Grunewald said federal court decisions have ruled that neither a superintendent nor the school board can unilaterally remove books from public school libraries.

“EPS is in a catch-22 situation. If we remove the books, we would be going against our own policy and federal court decisions. We would also be following (OSDE) rules that we believe are unlawful. If we do not remove the books, the State Department of Education has asked us to appear before the State Board of Education this Thursday to defend that decision,” Grunewald said. “The state department is also threatening the district with accreditation (downgrade) if we do not remove these books. Accreditation is vital to a school district for many reasons, and it’s something that we must protect.”

Andy Fugitt, the district’s legal counsel, said the question being asked of the Oklahoma Supreme Court will be whether the EPS board or OSDE determines what should be in a school library.

“The simple sort of legal issue is whether or not the folks that sit back here at this (EPS) Board of Education have the authority that the Legislature gave them to decide what should be in a school library, or if the Legislature has given that authority to the good folks down at 23rd and Lincoln,” Fugitt said. “That’s what we’re asking the Supreme Court to decide.”

Grunewald said OSDE informed EPS that it had received five Awareity complaints since April on the two books. Prior to the Jan. 19 letter, Grunewald said the district was only aware of one such complaint.

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“We responded and explained that EPS parents have a choice for the books their students are assigned and read in the secondary level in their classroom,” Grunewald said. “We do believe in parent choice.”

Grunewald and Fugitt said the demand that the district remove the books came after a recommendation from OSDE’s “Library Media Advisory Committee,” a recently announced and secret committee that has only one publicly known member: Chaya Raichik, a New York resident who runs the controversial Libs of TikTok social media account.

“The committee decides what’s pornographic, makes a recommendation to the state board, and the state board contacted Edmond,” Fugitt said.

Grunewald said that even though the Awareity complaints involved district curriculum, OSDE is asking the district to remove books from its high school libraries, an action Grunewald claimed is not within OSDE’s authority.

“The district did not take this action lightly and we do not want to be in this position. Our school board members did not take this step without careful consideration. Unfortunately, the State Department of Education’s action has forced us to seek judicial intervention,” she said. “I also want to say that we do not have pornography in our classrooms, in our libraries at Edmond Public Schools.”

Ryan Walters, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement that EPS is choosing to keep porn in its libraries.

“This is an ongoing subversion of accountability. Edmond Public Schools not only allows kids to access porn in schools, they are doubling down to keep pornography on the bookshelves. Parents and kids should have the confidence of going to schools to learn,” Walters said. “Instead of focusing on education, EPS has chosen to peddle porn and is leading the charge to undermine parents in Oklahoma.”

Despite Drummond AG opinion, Stitt approved rules in June

Oklahoma State Board of Education members approved the new accreditation standards concerning libraries at a meeting March 23, 2023, although it is unclear if the standards can be enforced owing to an attorney general opinion released the next month.

As written, the OSDE standards define pornographic material as:

(1) depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct which are patently offensive as found by the average person applying contemporary community standards, considering the youngest age of students with access to the material.
(2) materials that, taken as a whole, have as the dominant theme an appeal to prurient interest in sex as found by the average person applying contemporary community standards, and
(3) a reasonable person would find the material or performance taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, educational, political, or scientific purposes or value, considering the youngest age of students with access to the material.

The standards further define sexualized content as:

… material that is not strictly pornographic but otherwise contains excessive sexual material in light of the educational value of the material and in light of the youngest age of students with access to said material.

The standards require school districts to submit their catalog of library books to OSDE each year. According to the language of the standards, if the State Board of Education finds that a school district has library books violating the prohibition on “pornographic” or “sexualized content,” the board “shall alter the accreditation status of the school district at issue to either Accredited with Warning or Accredited with Probation.”

The standards received significant criticism when Walters proposed them to the board. Rep. Mark McBride asked Drummond to interpret OSDE’s statutory authority to make such rules, and Drummond issued an official opinion saying the Legislature must grant OSDE specific rule-making authority for topics not already established in state statute. Generally, public officials are expected to act in accordance with attorney general opinions unless a court says otherwise.

“Whether I agree or disagree with any particular rule in question is irrelevant if the board does not have the proper authority to issue those rules,” Drummond said in a press release at the time. “The Legislature is vested with policymaking authority. I will not allow any state agency, board or commission to usurp the Legislature‚Äôs rightful role, even if they have the best of intentions.”

Departmental rules and standards face a complicated validation process by which the Legislature can approve or deny rules before they go into effect. Lawmakers can also take no action and leave approval decisions to the governor.

In light of Drummond’s opinion, the Legislature ultimately declined to take action on Walters’ library program standards. Gov. Kevin Stitt gave final approval to the rule June 23.

OSDE’s Jan. 19 letter to EPS

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(Update: This article was updated at 8:53 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, to include the State Department of Education’s Jan. 19 letter to Edmond Public Schools. The article was also updated at 10:03 p.m. to correct attribution of a statement from Ryan Walters. It was updated a final time at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, to correct reference to attorney general opinions. NonDoc regrets the errors.)