new state board of education rules
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters reads a prayer to begin an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

In a marathon Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Thursday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters addressed the recent death of a non-binary Owasso High School student and a recent lawsuit Edmond Public Schools filed against him, the board and the State Department of Education.

Board members also took action on 18 sets of rules and on teacher certifications for five people, including two former Kingfisher High School football coaches.

Although the board took no action regarding the Owasso and Edmond scenarios Thursday, Walters urged people to wait before they make judgements on the death of Nex Benedict, a non-binary Owasso High School student who died one day after a physical altercation with fellow students. Benedict had gone to a hospital for treatment but was released.

“It’s a heartbreaking tragedy,” Walters said during his address to the board. “We’ve had a lot of folks that have rushed to have an opinion and judgment there in the wake of a tragedy. What I would ask is that we wait. While there’s little information available, there’ll be more that comes out over the next few weeks as law enforcement is doing their investigations. Once that’s done, I think we need to wait for those things to be done before we pass judgement.”

Little is currently known about Benedict’s final hours, including their specific cause of death. The Owasso Police Department said they are conducting a “very thorough” investigation into Benedict’s death.

The tragic situation has yet again drawn national attention to Oklahoma’s discussions of gender and sexuality in schools, and it has become a flashpoint for some regarding Walters’ rhetoric concerning gender.

“You have stoked the fires that lead to the death of an innocent 16-year-old child, and you should worry, worry worry,” said Peggy Howe during the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting.

Howe’s statements were in line with statewide and national outcry over Benedict’s death. Many observers have criticized Chaya Raichik, who runs the Libs of TikTok social media account, for espousing harmful rhetoric around non-binary students. Walters recently appointed Raichik to OSDE’s Library Media Advisory Committee.

“These children who attacked Nex had to be taught to hate,” said Mike Howe, Peggy’s husband, during the public comment section of the meeting. “How do we do that? Would it be by having someone like Ms. Raichik target a teacher at Nex’s school who supported non-conforming students? And then Ms. Raichik is rewarded by our superintendent with a position on our library advisory committee.”

Although police have said an autopsy showed that Benedict’s death was not caused by physical trauma, a specific cause of death has not been determined.

The family’s attorneys released a statement asking for privacy and saying they would be conducting their own, independent investigation. They also asked for threats against students, staff and personnel at Owasso High School to “cease immediately.”

“Many of the questions posed by firends, family, media and other concerned citizens are also top of mind for those left to honor Nex’s memory. While various investigations are still pending, the facts currently known by the family, some of which have been released to the public, are troubling at best,” lawyers with the Biby Law Firm wrote.

EPS lawsuit over OSDE rules discussed

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)

Walters also addressed a petition filed by Edmond Public Schools with the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday. The petition alleges that the board had no authority to pass a controversial library rule last year and requests that the court prohibit OSDE from enforcing it.

EPS filed the writ of prohibition in response to OSDE telling the district to remove two books from district libraries or it could be in violation of the rule that prohibits “pornography” and “sexualized content.” The two books are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Both books are popular across the country in high school English classes — including in EPS classes — but each has drawn criticism for depictions of sexual assault and rape. In a letter sent to EPS in January, OSDE specified that the rule only concerns libraries, not curriculum, so the department was only concerned with the availability of the books in libraries.

During Thursday’s meeting, Walters said the two books were not as important as the petition’s implications for his library rule.

“Edmond is trying to make it about these two books — that’s not the issue at hand,” Walters said. “We have been trying to work with Edmond Public Schools on ensuring that certain books were in the hands of age-appropriate kids in school. And that district decided to sue us on the entirety of our rules that ban pornographic material and sexually explicit material from minors.”

State board members took no action regarding EPS on Thursday. District officials initially said they had been asked to defend their decision not to remove the books before the board at the meeting, but the hearing did not make it onto the final agenda, purportedly owing to the litigation.

Asked about the books after the meeting, Walters said the books should not be available to young kids.

“Age appropriateness is a big part of this. A book that a 17- or 18-year-old should read isn’t necessarily a book that should be in front of a 9-year-old,” Walters said. “We have parents that are telling us it’s available for grade-school-aged kids. So we need more information because that’s a little different story than a 17- or 18-year-old. And the district decided instead of responding to that (…) they decided to launch a lawsuit and attack our very rule that stops pornographic material across the board.”

New, amended and revoked rules

The bulk of the board’s actions during Thursday’s nearly 5.5-hour meeting dealt with rules and certifications. Board members took action on 19 different sets of administrative rules, making sweeping changes to accreditation standards for districts, teacher conduct and requirements for local school board members.

Board members approved five new rules and 10 amendments to rules that covered a wide swath of areas.

The new rules:

  • Give districts an academic accreditation deficiency if their students’ do not meet certain academic standards;
  • ban DEI programs;
  • require districts to adopt voluntary prayer and minute of silence policies;
  • adopt “foundational values” for the Oklahoma public education system that include acknowledgement of a “Creator” and declarations such as “Truth, goodness and beauty are objective moral virtues” and “Good and evil are real and universal rather than relativistic concepts;” and
  • require districts to comply with the School District Transparency Act.

The amended rules:

  • cause a district to receive a “health and safety” accreditation deficiency if it “maintains active employment” of a teacher while they are under a certification revocation investigation and that teacher’s certification is later revoked;
  • Add an accreditation status of “Accredited with Distinction” for districts that receive that recommendation after undergoing a “distinction audit;”
  • allow districts to fire teachers who engage in sexual acts or “acts that appeal to the prurient interest in sex” in front of minors;
  • remove the Oklahoma State School Board Association from the list of automatically approved organizations that can provide training to school board members;
  • update the due process requirements for certificate revocation proceedings to add that respondents have 21 days to contest revocation applications or their lack of a response will be deemed an admission of guilt;
  • Add a Civics Seal to the list of possible student academic recognitions;
  • Add the term “independent contractor” to the parental rights code;
  • Make changes to statewide testing and student remediations based on that testing;
  • Make changes to district accounting rules;
  • Eliminate a prohibition on school board members from interfering in administrative functions of school districts.

Additionally, board members revoked three sets of rules. The department said it had identified each as “unnecessary, costly, ineffective, duplicative, or outdated.”

Walters emphasized the rules that tie accreditation status closer to academic performance, the foundational values rule and the “health and safety” rule as ones that he was particularly proud of.

“We’ve got to move to an education system that is focused on student results,” Walters told reporters after the meeting.

Walters also laid out a path forward for OSSBA. The state board’s vote to prevent the organization from being automatically approved to provide school board training means it will now have to go through OSDE on a regular basis for approval.

“They have a chance of being approved,” Walters said after the meeting. “They need to quit being a woke, left-wing association that’s undermining parents rights that stands in the way of the state moving forward in education reform.”

Revocation proceedings begin for former Kingfisher coaches

Board members also suspended the teacher certifications of three teachers and began certificate revocation proceedings for former Kingfisher High School football coaches Jeff Myers and Micah Nall.

“What I’ve seen in Kingfisher is horrendous,” Walters said after the meeting. “No kid should ever have to go through that. Hearing from the parents, it should not have happened. So we’re going to hold those responsible for it who should have not allowed that to happen, but also those who knew about it and those that continued to let it go on.”

In October, Myers was charged with felony child neglect and Nall was charged with felony child abuse and perjury regarding their leadership of Kingfisher’s football program. A federal lawsuit naming them, two other coaches and the district was settled for $5 million in December, days before it was set to go to trial.

Myers and Nall have both pleaded not guilty. As part of the settlement agreement in the federal lawsuit, Kingfisher Public Schools agreed to bar Myers from coaching any sport in the district. Myers has been on leave from teaching since he was charged.

Nall left the district in 2021 and took a job at Western Heights Public Schools as the district’s “football analyst.” Nall has been on leave since he was charged.

The revocation proceedings are the first actions the state board has taken against Myers or Nall. Both men still hold active teacher certifications. Typically, the state board suspends teacher certifications before initiating revocation proceedings.

Additionally, State Board of Education members suspended certifications of three teachers Thursday:

  • Kelly Bacot, a Nicoma Park Elementary School teacher who was charged this month with public intoxication that allegedly happened in her classroom;
  • Stacy Parker, a Krebs Public Schools special education teacher who was charged this month with four counts of abuse of her students; and
  • Roland Sanders, whose name as spelled on the agenda does not appear to hold a teacher certification, according to OSDE’s online educator search tool. (A former Miami teacher named Ronald Sanders is currently facing 10 criminal charges in federal court that include various sexual abuse involving a minor charges, coercion, production of child pornography and evidence tampering.)

Other board actions Thursday included allocating funds to implement a teacher raise for off-formula districts pursuant to a massive education funding package passed by the Oklahoma Legislature last year.

Additionally, board members disapproved a request from Little Axe Public Schools to be in session for less than the required 165 days. It approved the same request for two other districts: Morrison Public Schools and Roff Public Schools. All three districts said they have implemented four-day school weeks.

Board members also heard their monthly report from Tulsa Public Schools officials on progress toward goals set for the district by the board. Members took no action on TPS, but they asked questions and again praised the district’s progress.