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Okla. downgrades school district over complaint it shamed White people

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has touted House Bill 1775, which he signed last year, as prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted this week to downgrade the accreditation of Tulsa Public Schools after a teacher reportedly complained that the school district’s training materials “shame white people.”

The board voted 4-2 to lower the status of Tulsa Public Schools to “accredited with warning” on Thursday after the State Department of Education determined an implicit bias training for teachers in August 2021 violated House Bill 1775. The law, which restricts discussions of race and sex in public schools, is widely seen as targeting critical race theory. The state investigation began after a complaint from a teacher who has not been publicly identified, according to the Oklahoman.

The board also demoted another district, Mustang Public Schools near Oklahoma City, to “accredited with warning” after it self-reported that a teacher had violated House Bill 1775 by using an exercise that made students uncomfortable on account of their race or sex.

The demotions mark the first enforcement action under the law, which Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed in May 2021, the Oklahoman reported. All four members who voted to downgrade the districts were appointed by Stitt.

The law does not explicitly mention critical race theory — an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism — but prohibits teaching what it calls “discriminatory principles,” including that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The measure came amid Republican efforts to bar teaching about systemic racism and oppression in schools following the nation’s racial reckoning in 2020, which opponents say is leading to self-censorship and fear among teachers. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Oklahoma over the law in October, alleging that it violates students’ and teachers’ First and 14th amendment rights.

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Representatives for the Tulsa and Mustang school districts did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday. In a statement to the Oklahoman, Tulsa Public Schools denied that the training stated that people of a certain race were inherently racist, saying it would “never support such a training,” but the system defended the need for implicit bias training.

“In Tulsa, we are teaching our children an accurate — and at times painful, difficult, and uncomfortable — history about our shared human experience,” the district told the newspaper. “We also teach in a beautifully diverse community and need our team to work together to be prepared to do that well.”

Charles Bradley, the superintendent of Mustang Public Schools, said in a statement published by News 9 that he was “shocked” by the board’s demotion, which he called a “harsh action.”

H.B. 1775 prohibits teaching that any individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” It also bans any course material that would make a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

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The complaint against Tulsa Public Schools stemmed from a 20-minute implicit bias training for teachers conducted by a third-party vendor last August. The administrative rules for H.B. 1775 extend the prohibitions in the law to teacher trainings.

Tulsa’s training informed teachers that they must be “aware of our own inherent biases, as well as historical biases against minorities,” the Oklahoman reported. In response, a teacher filed a complaint with the state alleging that the training materials “specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racially biased by nature,” according to Public Radio Tulsa.

The outlet identified the teacher who filed the complaint as Amy Cook, who was investigated earlier this year for allegedly proselytizing in class and briefly ran for the state Senate. On her campaign website, she wrote that as a Tulsa Public Schools teacher, she has witnessed “spiritually damaging programs, liberal brainwashing, and political indoctrination being slipped into our schools.”

Brad Clark, the general counsel for the State Department of Education, announced at the board’s June meeting that his agency’s investigation into the complaint found the district in violation of the law.

“It was a close call, but we believe the spirit of that training, or the design of it, was contradictory to House Bill 1775,” Clark said in June.

Though Clark recommended the district be demoted one level to “accredited with deficiency,” board member Brian Bobek introduced a motion at Thursday’s meeting to downgrade it one step further, to “accredited with warning.” That level indicates the district has an issue that “seriously detracts from the quality of the school’s educational program,” per the state’s accreditation standards.

Bobek argued that anyone who took the training “is going to be biased, potentially” and called it an “egregious” violation that merited warning status.

Board member Estela Hernandez agreed, accusing the Tulsa district of deliberately flouting the law and arguing that the extra level of demotion was necessary to “send a message.”

The state’s finding that the training violated the law was met with pushback from board member Carlisha Williams Bradley, who said implicit bias “does not equate to inherent racism.”

“Maybe this is why some of this content should be taught in schools because I just don’t know that we all have a shared understanding of definitions and language here,” she said at the meeting.

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Williams Bradley and state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who won a primary last month to be the Democratic nominee for governor, voted against downgrading both districts. Hofmeister said she voted no because she supported the state agency’s recommendation of only demoting the districts one level.

The board’s vote came less than a month after Stitt called for a “special audit” of the Tulsa district over its use of coronavirus relief funding and for allegedly teaching critical race theory, which the district denies.

Williams Bradley told The Washington Post on Saturday that the decision was an “obvious attack” on Tulsa Public Schools, which she noted is a majority-minority district.

“It is appalling and terrifying that we have schools and educators who can be penalized for having conversations about true facts, history and implicit bias that we all have based on the differences of our lived experiences,” she wrote in an email.

While the Tulsa complaint involved teacher training, the complaint against the Mustang district centered on a lesson for students, which was investigated internally and self-reported to the state, Clark said.

The exercise, which was taught by a single teacher, asked students to answer questions about whether they had experienced or perpetrated discrimination or bullying, according to News 9. The district determined that the lesson violated the law because it made students feel discomfort based on their race or sex.

The state also recommended Mustang be demoted one level to “accredited with deficiency,” but board member Jennifer Monies argued the panel must be “consistent with how we apply” H.B. 1775 and avoid the appearance of “unfairly targeting” the Tulsa district.

The same four members then voted to downgrade Mustang Public Schools two levels to “accredited with warning.”

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