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Oklahoma’s education board targets library content, sex education with Walters’ new rules

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Oklahoma’s State Board of Education passed several controversial new rules regarding gender and sex education in schools, and took action to clamp down on teachers’ unions Thursday.

One rule would require school personnel to disclose to students’ parents or guardians within 30 days if students show “material changes” related to their gender identity — like using different pronouns or names — or their health, social or psychological development.

It would also require schools to give advance written notice for sex education and allow for parents to inspect and object to sex education classroom materials or any “other instruction questioning beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.”

Parents can provide written complaints to the State Department, and the department will notify the school and conduct an investigation. If a violation is found, the school’s accreditation status could be downgraded.

Another rule would penalize districts’ accreditation status if they have library materials deemed to have sexualized or pornographic content. Districts would be required to provide a total inventory of all library materials to the state and adopt a policy for parent or guardian review of any library materials, as well as to respond to complaints of those materials.

The legislature and the governor must approve the rules before they can be enacted.

“Outing” students

Though most of the public commenters at Thursday’s meeting spoke in favor of the rule changes, last week’s public comment session over the new rules drew a much more critical crowd. Notably, Secretary of Education and State Superintendent RyanWalters — who proposed the rules — was absent, though he was under no requirement to be there.

A spokesman for Walters said he was absent from the public comment hearing because he was meeting with community members. Asked after the meeting which community he visited, Walters said he would “not disclose where all [he] was on Friday, but [he] was having conversations with parents and teachers across the state.”

“I am literally in eight to ten events almost everyday with parents, teachers, kids, administrators. So we try to media releases on some of them, sometimes we don’t,” Walters said. “Sometimes I do private school visits. Sometimes I make it open to the press, open to the public. A lot of times, depending on the types of conversations we’re having, I don’t always like for everything that we’re doing to be out in the press. I like it to be private conversations.”

Walters said he listened to all of the feedback given at last week’s hearing.

Speaking against the rules, Freedom Oklahoma’s Nicole McAfee said during the public comment period they’re concerned for the safety of 2SLGBTQ+ kids.

“I know that based on today’s conversation, it may seem like there’s overwhelming support of this. But for the two [Board of Education members] who sat in on Friday, there was overwhelming opposition,” McAfee said. “And I know that you consider all of that as you make these decisions. I want to say that these rules are based on this false premise rhetoric that we’ve heard since Anita Bryant days, that children are being indoctrinated to be queer and trans. And that’s not true.”

McAfee quoted a study from The Trevor Project that found LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. Over a quarter of LGBTQ youth who did not have at least one accepting adult in their life reported attempting suicide.

Content restrictions

Walters presented illustrated pages from several books he says are in schools, though when asked later how prevalent they were, he didn’t provide a number.

“I think if it’s in one school library, if it’s in one classroom, it’s too much,” he said.

Asked after the meeting if Walters had read any of the books used as examples — “Lawn Boy” by Jonathon Evison, “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Ibrahim Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe — he said he’d “seen enough that would violate our obscenity laws.”

“Have I read through them cover to cover? No, I haven’t,” Walters said. “I have glanced through them, I have seen the content, flipped through, and kind of gotten a concept of kind of the narrative that’s being promoted by them.”

According to state law, material is considered legally “obscene” if it includes representation, performance or depiction of sexual content that the average person would find to be “patently offensive.” As a whole, the material must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Material considered “harmful to minors” is prohibited to be distributed or displayed to anyone under 18. The law defines it as any description, presentation or representation of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse, that the average person would find has a predominant tendency to “appeal to a prurient interest in sex to minors,” is “patently offensive,” and lacks literary, scientific, artistic or political value for minors.

Walters announced the creation of an online portal to file complaints about materials in schools, called “Parent Watch,” to be rolled out “in the coming weeks.” Walters said parents can email parentwatch@sde.ok.gov.

The department also announced an online FAQ resource for parents who have questions about “School Choice.”

This all comes after Attorney General Gentner Drummond issued a non-binding opinion that the Board does not have the authority to create rules without direction from the legislature, though it’s unclear if a formal opinion will be released.

Clamp down on teachers’ unions

Walters also took aim at teachers’ unions, citing a 2018 Supreme Court decision. In a letter written to teachers, Walters advises of teachers’ First Amendment right to “refrain from joining and paying dues or making political contributions to a public-sector union.”

The superintendent said teachers should not have automatic union deductions from their paychecks year-to-year, and they should have to opt-in every year for continued enrollment.

“I'm not going to mince words on this,” Walters said at the meeting. “Teachers’ unions have done all that they can to destroy public education. They target our kids. They target schools by forcing them into shutdowns, by pushing woke ideology on our kids. And it is time that the public and all of our public school teachers, all of our great teachers across the state, know what their rights are and know about the motives of these teachers’ unions.”

Walters said he plans to email every teacher in the state to explain the law, and he’s calling upon Attorney General Gentner Drummond to provide legal guidance ensuring it is enforced.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.