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A state investigation found Tulsa schools didn’t directly violate a law on race and gender teachings

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Chris Polansky / KWGS News
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Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist leaves the stage following a press conference on COVID relief funding at Tulsa Police Department headquarters on Aug. 13, 2020.

An Oklahoma State Department of Education investigation found that Tulsa Public Schools didn’t directly break a law on teaching race and gender issues before a state board voted to downgrade the district’s accreditation status. But an attorney for the Education Department still recommended punishment for the district, finding that an online teacher training course was based on “outlawed concepts,” according to a letter obtained by The Frontier.

State Department of Education General Counsel Brad Clark wrote in a July 7 letter to the Tulsa school district that the agency had found no evidence that a training course called “Cultural Competence and Racial Bias,” violated the law.

“Upon reviewing this information, the OSDE did not find any evidence to substantiate the allegation that the training included ‘statements that specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racially biased in nature,’” Clark wrote. 

However, the investigation did find that audio from the training, which Clark later declined to provide the the State Board of Education, “incorporated” or was “based on” concepts including that “societal systems, including public schools, were originally solely developed by the majority, who were then predominantly White, middle-class individuals,” that black students are more likely to be suspended than white students, and that “deeply rooted stereotypes, built over time and by history and culture, can still be found in classrooms.”

These ideas violated House Bill 1775, a law Oklahoma enacted in 2021 that banned some teachings about race and gender in public schools, even if the concepts weren’t explicitly mentioned, Clark wrote.

“Though there were not direct statements in the training that an individual should feel discomfort or guilt because of their race, the design and basis of the training makes it more likely than not that it incorporates and/or is based on such a concept,” the letter said.

The state board voted last week 4-2 to downgrade both Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools to “accredited with a warning,” a harsher punishment than was originally recommended. Mustang Public Schools, which self-reported a violation from earlier this year based on a student exercise meant to increase empathy among students, received the same punishment as Tulsa for the sake of consistency, board members said last week. There is no appeals process.

According to Clark’s letter, the 18-minute online training on cultural and racial bias that Tulsa Public Schools used was from Vector Solutions, Inc., one of the largest producers of online workplace training in the United States.

The state investigation found that, while none of the concepts banned by HB1775 were directly included in the training course, there was evidence “making it more likely than not that the training incorporated and/or is based on some banned concepts, including that “an individual is inherently racist because of their race, consciously or unconsciously.”

The Frontier has requested a copy of the training from Tulsa Public Schools and Vector Solutions, Inc., but neither have fulfilled the request.

Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, who has viewed the training, disagrees with Clark’s conclusion.

“There was no violation of 1775 in the complete 18-minute audio and video that I saw and heard,” said Goodwin. “Clark admitted there was no violation in the materials. He spoke to his interpretation of what the materials possibly could mean and of what he thought the vendor intended. In what world is that a credible violation of law?”

But Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, a co-author of HB1775, said he thinks Clark’s conclusion is fair and that violations of HB1775 don’t need to be explicit.

“When a seminar talking about ‘racial bias’ is telling you that black people are more likely to be suspended than white people, I don’t know that it’s like crazy to think that somebody is going to think that you’re trying to get me to realize that (white teachers who disproportionately suspend black students) are racist,” he said.

“To me, if you drop breadcrumbs towards a specific conclusion, I don’t think that you get a pass just because you didn’t explicitly state the final conclusion,” Caldwell said.

Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the principal author of HB1775, agreed.

“You can state facts in a matter-of-fact way or you can do them in a way that implies the person you’re speaking to is guilty,” he said.

A ‘cross-the-line’ activity at Mustang Public Schools also violated HB 1775, school officials found. But it’s still unclear what parts of the law the district believes it broke. Mustang conducted its own internal investigation and reported the matter to state officials.

The district reported its findings to the state and has its own plan of correction, State Department of Education spokeswoman Leslie Berger told The Frontier. Mustang claimed that the State Department of Education had confirmed the findings of its internal investigation, but Berger said the agency never endorsed the district’s conclusion.

In a statement released Monday, Mustang Public Schools said that “at least one question” violated “the spirit of the law.” That question was: “If you have ever been called names regarding your race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical/learning disability and felt uncomfortable, take one step back.”

Mustang has yet to release further information from its investigation.

The parent who made the original complaint spoke anonymously to FOX25 in Oklahoma City and said their child felt uncomfortable because of the cross-the-line activity.

Caldwell was adamant that HB1775 does not prevent teachers from teaching things that make students feel discomfort or guilt, although he acknowledged that this is a common misconception of the law. The law only prevents teachers from saying that students should feel guilt or discomfort based on their race, he said.

“Simply feeling uncomfortable in and of itself does not violate 1775,” he said. “It doesn’t say that whatsoever.”

“In a historical setting if we’re talking about the Holocaust, and as a someone who is of a German origin, if I felt guilt or whatever from someone saying Germany did it, that in and of itself certainly isn’t precluded in this bill,” he said.

Goodwin, a staunch opponent of HB1775, said she thinks this confusion was intentionally designed into the bill.

“The bill was written so that schools will not be able to stand up to it because folks are not wanting to take the time to delineate the difference between a concept that teaches that you should feel guilty and someone just arbitrarily saying I feel guilty,” she said.

The Frontier asked Kirk Wilson, the director of communications for Mustang, why the district found it had violated the law and what section they thought they had violated.

“All of (the investigators) agreed that the question with the ‘felt uncomfortable’ was what was violating the spirit of the law,” Wilson said. “It’s hard when the law is about feelings and so it’s really kind of in the eye of the holder and I guess there were students, and at least one complainant that felt uncomfortable and felt like that this violated the law and so the conclusion of the investigation by those three individuals found that it did.”

Mustang’s attorney Brian Drummond and two district administrators who helped lead the investigation did not respond to requests for comment.

But Caldwell thinks the cross-the-line exercise violates HB1775 in another way. By prompting students to step forwards or backwards based on their identity and asking them to observe their differences, the activity seems to “define students either positively or negatively” because of their race or sex, he said. The law prohibits teaching that individuals are inherently superior or have better moral character due to their race or sex.

Only three complaints for alleged violations of HB1775 have been filed so far, but some parents say they expect more will follow.

Janice Danforth, chair of the Tulsa chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parental rights group made up of over 700 parents in Tulsa county, told The Frontier she expects more complaints will be filed against Tulsa Public Schools in the near future.

“There have been many questionable things that have been brought to my attention, some of them straddling the line of breaking the law and some not,” she said. “I expect there to be many cases brought forward this school year. We are better prepared to tackle questionable curriculum now and we will expose it.”

Further violations would cause the district to first be put on probation, Berger said. If the problems aren’t resolved and more complaints are received, the district could lose accreditation and even be dissolved.

“If TPS does not follow the law, then we expect there to be a consequence,” Danforth said. “More and more parents are waking up to the woke ideology that is being embedded into their child’s classes. And more parents are becoming bold and ready to stand up.”

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The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.