Oologah School Board member gives quarterly report to Hofmeister, Oklahoma State Board of Education

Members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education last week were given an update from a member of the Oologah-Talala Board of Education, as required by the state board’s mandates last month.

At state board on Thursday, July 23, State Board General Counsel Brian Clark reminded State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and State Board members that the action taken the June 25 meeting was “threefold” in that it placed Oologah-Talala Public Schools on probationary status for the 2020-21 school year, issued a letter of public reprimand, and required a quarterly report to be given to the state board.

At the June 25 meeting, Hofmeister chastised the Oologah board for “failing to move swiftly when notified of complaints involving inappropriate actions with a child, citing the five (Oologah) school district teachers since 2016 who had either surrendered, or faced revocation of, their teaching certificates following sexual misconduct incidents.

On Tuesday, July 21, Hofmeister issued a formal letter of censure to the Oologah superintendent and school board, and at Thursday’s meeting of the state board, State Board General Counsel Brian Clark reminded State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and State Board members of the actions taken against Oologah at the previous meeting.

“Action taken (June 25) was ‘threefold’ in that it placed Oologah-Talala Public Schools on probationary status for the 2020-21 school year, issued a letter of public reprimand, and required a quarterly report to be given to the state board,” Clark said, noting that those in virtual attendance of the state board meeting included Oologah Superintendent Max Tanner, Oologah Board of Education President Don Tice and board member Brian Wigginton.

School district attorney Karen Long appeared with Wigginton as he delivered his report, who remained stone-faced throughout.

“There are many responsibilities we have as local school board members, including governance of the school district, supporting its mission, representing members of our community, complying with federal and state laws and regulations, among other responsibilities,” he said. “Our greatest responsibility is protecting the health, safety and welfare of our students, coupled with an excellent learning environment every day.

“Since October of 2019, when our board received your letter, we have listened to your concerns,” he said. “We understand that as a board and as a district, we must do better. The board of education and our leadership team Has continued to address areas of concern since our last meeting (on June 19). We are committed to make positive changes and restoring the confidence of students, parents, and district stakeholders.

“Oologah-Talala has a tradition of excellence, and we are not defined by the state board’s actions,” he continued. “We have been and remain fully committed to our students and families. School board members and school leaders have been – and will continue to – evaluate and significantly improve our procedures and processes for investigating student and staff complaints of sex discrimination and sexual harassment with special emphasis on Title IX.”

Title IX is a federal statute prohibiting sex discrimination, which also deals with gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and sexual exploitation.

Wigginton said the district would continue to seek guidance from the Oklahoma State Department and noted that OT Assistant Superintendent John Sappington had recently been named Title IX coordinator for the school district.

“Mr. Sappington is an experienced educator with a heart for children and deep commitment to student safety, with a willingness to tackle increased training of staff members regarding inappropriate statements or actions to or about students and improved education of students regarding reporting to adults any actions by adults – including school employees -- that make students uncomfortable,” he said. “We have set up Title IX and investigative training on Aug. 3 for all school administrators, and this training will include new Title IX regulations which go into effect on Aug. 14 of this year.”

Wigginton said Oologah administrators would be among the first in Oklahoma to receive training in the new Title IX regulations, with training to be provided by Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) attorney and certified Title IX trainer, Brandon Carey.

“In addition, our teachers will be provided professional development on Title IX and reporting,” he said. “New policies have been developed and presented to the board of education on sexual harassment, child exploitation and professional conduct by teachers and staff. We have approved student pamphlets to be handed out the first day of school which will also be displayed at each entrance of the school, added to our student handbooks and mailed to every parent of school-aged students before school begins.”

Among Sappington’s responsibilities as Title IX coordinator are overseeing site administration decision making of personnel hires, investigations and terminations, as well as all personnel and student complaints.

Wigginton added that board members were aware of the concern of parents regarding the school districts’ probationary accreditation status affecting the quality of their children’s education or the validity of their course work and grades.

“Please be assured that we will work hard in every area identified and we will provide a quality education to our students as we have in the past,” he said. “Their learning will not be interrupted because of this situation. There will be no staff member who is unaware of existing and new policies that make it crystal clear that allegations of sexual harassment of students will be promptly investigated, parents notified, and decisive action taken, and within bounds of the law, reports will be made by the administration or the board of education to the state department and state board.

“As school board members and school leaders, we will oversee the development and implementation of this new safe plan,” he said. “Additionally, we will take all steps necessary to protect and respect students, to regain full accreditation with the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and to strengthen trust with our students, parents, staff, and school and education community.

“We believe that the board approval and implementation of new policies, increased training of staff, and focused education of students and parents will ensure our schools are safe and welcoming for every student,” he said. “This will be the forefront of every decision we make. We are honored to serve Oologah-Talala students and their parents.

“To be clear: We agree that would-be educators and school leaders who disregard students have no place in public education,” he said, echoing Hofmeister’s words. “They have no place in our school district. Our board has consistently sought the maximum discipline in the instance involving employee abuse or the exploitation of students. We have also respected legal boundaries that dictate when a board member may have access to and review information regarding district employees, so they can faithfully meet their obligations as ultimate district-based judges of teacher misconduct charges.”

Following Wigginton’s remarks, Superintendent Tanner made brief comments, and Tice, in answering a question asked by a member of the state board, said he felt that members of the Oologah community feel comfortable in sending their children back to the school district.

“I believe they (the Oologah community) feel their children can go there safely, with the number of kids who are enrolled and are ready,” Tice said. “Of course, given the (COVID-19) situation, everyone is curious as to how that’s going to be accomplished, whether that’s through virtual learning or in person, but at this point, there are a number of students who are ready, have enrolled, and are expecting to attend.”

After further discussions, Superintendent Hofmeister thanked Wigginton for his report, and for the district’s recognition of the importance of a Title IX coordinator.

“We are always aware that sometimes people are wearing many hats, and this (Title IX coordinator) is a position, a role, that’s a federal responsibility. Unfortunately, I have concerns that in many districts, we have a lack of appreciation for the role, the federal responsibilities, the moral responsibilities as well,” she said. “Thank you for a very thorough presentation and the steps that you’ve taken.”

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