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Lack of rules let elite school ignore sexual harassment and bullying of students

The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is seen in Oklahoma City.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is seen in Oklahoma City.

As a student at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, Lawton Blanchard, who is Black and queer, said she was belittled, called stupid and mocked by physics professor Kurt Bachmann.

Once, after berating Blanchard over homework, Bachmann remarked in class that she should spend less time on her hair and more time studying, Blanchard said. Another time, the professor called her an embarrassment to the school, Blanchard said.

When Blanchard reported the professor’s behavior to a counselor, the student was told there wasn’t anything they could do.

“The safeguards literally do not exist except to protect teachers,” Blanchard said.

Another former student, Dene Betz, reported her science professor, Mark Li, to school leaders after a classroom experiment took an uncomfortable turn. While teaching a lesson on nerve receptors, Li had Betz and another female student go into a closet to test the sensitivity of their nipples, Betz said.

Li, who taught reproductive biology, made inappropriate, sexual comments so regularly students nicknamed him Sex Li to differentiate him from another professor with the same last name, said Morgan Johnston, who graduated from OSSM in 2016.

Following an Oklahoma Watch investigation into how the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics ignored female employees’ reports of sexual harassment and discrimination, former students of the school came forward with stories of how the misogynistic and toxic culture permeated their experiences, too.

The school has operated for three decades without an employee handbook or agency rules prohibiting sexual harassment or abuse.

OSSM is a state-funded high school for academically advanced juniors and seniors that regularly ranks as one of the top 10 high schools in the country.

But unlike public schools and many private schools, OSSM doesn’t fall under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools and school activities, according to the attorney general’s office, because the school doesn’t receive any federal funding. It’s a state-appropriated agency that received about $6.5 million this year.

In the wake of a lawsuit by former employee Keli Pueblo, school leaders are implementing reforms. The school rolled out an anonymous incident reporting system last week and has re-established the board’s personnel subcommittee, which is leading an effort to hire a consultant to review the school’s personnel policies and procedures. That work is to include an employee handbook.

President Tony Cornforth said in a written statement to Oklahoma Watch that the school has zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. He encouraged anyone with concerns to contact his administration.

Li and Bachmann were placed on administrative leave while the school investigates, according to two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Cornforth, in an email to staff dated Sept. 20, announced the leave without naming them.

Bachmann denied bullying students.

“I never said any student is stupid,” Bachmann said. “That’s absolutely false. But I might say students aren’t well prepared or something like that.”

Li, in response to a detailed list of allegations, said the student’s recollection of the nerve receptors lesson is far-fetched and needs clarification and context. Students have 14 body regions to choose from for the experiment, the breast being one. Li said he makes it clear choosing the breast is optional.

“Those students who insisted on doing the test would go to a separate room (not a closet) in a pair by themselves (two males or females) and lock themselves behind,” Li wrote.

Former Students Had Similar Experiences

Oklahoma Watch interviewed nine former students who attended between 2004 and 2018 about their experiences. They described hazing, bullying and humliliating girls for their perceived sexuality. Some struggled with mental health issues after graduation, which some attributed to the high-pressure academics.

But their top concerns were about Bachmann and Li.

In class, Li once brought out a vibrator and offered to let any of the female students borrow it after class, Morgan Johnston recalled. Li denied that and said it was a muscle massager used for a lab experiment on nerve receptors.

He asked students who they were dating, and offered his office as a space for alone time, despite rules against student relationships, Johnston said.

“Even as teenagers, we thought, ‘We’re pretty sure this is a strange thing for him to be doing,’” Johnston said.

Three female students in April 2022 reported Li had made sexual comments in class, records show. The students told Pueblo, and Pueblo reported it to Frank Wang, then the president, and Brent Richards, vice president for academic services.

Pueblo reported to federal authorities and school administrators that on multiple occasions Li asked female students and colleagues, “You want to watch me jerk them off?” referring to various animals and living organisms in his anatomy courses and laboratories.

Adults, too, complained about Li following a camp for middle school math and science teachers held at OSSM each summer. At least six participants wrote negative comments about Li in their evaluations.

“Dr. Li told way too many dirty jokes that I believe were unprofessional,” one wrote. “They made me feel very uncomfortable and embarrassed and, in my opinion, were completely unnecessary.”

“One issue I did not approve of was Dr. Li would use sexual comments, innuendos, and jokes during every class and during opportunities he had to address the whole group, during the welcome speech, and bus rides,” wrote another.

Pueblo, then the development director for OSSM, reported those concerns to three administrators at the school. Li has been an instructor for the camp for 20 years, and director for the past nine years.

“Those silly jokes were meant to create a relaxed atmosphere for the workshop, and not directed at any person or with any ill intent,” he told Oklahoma Watch in response to the 2019 evaluations.

This year’s evaluations contained no negative remarks, he said.

Betz, who graduated from OSSM in 2013, said Li sometimes asked her if she was masturbating. He brought wine on campus and tried to get her to drink with him, she said. She eventually reported him to Jack Gleason, her dorm supervisor. But it was Betz who was kicked off campus; the school called her parents and claimed she tried to commit suicide, which Betz denied. She had to move out of the dorms, despite being just weeks away from graduation.

“They said no, we can’t let you on campus because you’ve expressed concerns about Mark Li,” Betz recalled. “I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t really make sense. Why wouldn’t he be removed from campus?’”

Rebecca Morris, an OSSM alumna who worked at the school from 2011 to 2019, said she was especially concerned about Li because he lived in the dorms.

“I didn’t know as a student, but as staff, I noticed how he befriended the loneliest girls,” Morris said.

In 2014, Morris heard a disturbing report about Bachmann, the physics professor. A female student, who declined to be interviewed, told Morris that Bachmann made comments that made her uncomfortable on a school trip to China. He used sexual innuendos in front of others on the trip and, at one point, said female students at OSSM give oral sex in the parking lot, Morris said.

Bachmann denied those comments.

Morris reported the incident via email to the vice president of academic services, who oversaw teaching faculty, and the dean of students. Two weeks had passed since the student’s report, and in the email, Morris said she regretted not telling someone sooner.

“I have become ‘accustomed’ to his behavior,” she wrote. “I recognize now that while it sometimes feels like that is ‘just how Dr. Bachmann is,’ or some of us believe he is not even aware of what he is doing, it is not appropriate in the classroom, at work, or around students.”

At least three other times, Morris asked Bachmann to stop a conversation with her or another dorm staff member because she thought what he was saying was inappropriate or offensive.

She quit in 2019, feeling like the school wasn’t safe for students or staff, she said.

“When there’s a complaint or concern, it’s not addressed appropriately,” Morris said. “The administration has focused on protecting the reputation of the school.”

In the fall of 2021, counselor Amanda Bonnett got an angry phone call from a female student’s mother, who said Bachmann was making sexist comments in class and calling students dumb, records reviewed by Oklahoma Watch show. The mother said she heard about Bachmann before her daughter came to OSSM, said she was concerned about student safety, and wanted her daughter out of his class immediately.

Similar complaints go back nearly two decades. Former student Alexis Davis said Bachmann made degrading comments toward girls in class when she attended OSSM from 2004-2005 and would bump into girls’ buttocks or breasts and stare down their shirts.

Davis said when she had one-on-one tutoring with Bachmann, she made sure to borrow a large T-shirt from a male student to wear to the session to cover her body. She didn’t know how to handle it.

“As a teenage girl, you didn’t know the proper procedure to report sexual harassment,” Davis said.

Bachmann denied touching or bumping into girls. He said the school’s president surveys students at graduation and they never reported anything like that.

School Has Few Rules

OSSM is governed by a 25-member board of trustees. The Legislature gave the board the authority to write rules for the school, but it’s done so far less than comparable agencies.

Two pages of rules exist for OSSM in state records. They cover enrolling students who aren’t residents of Oklahoma, renting its facilities, and charging fees for summer workshops. There is nothing addressing employee conduct with students.

In comparison, the Office of Juvenile Affairs, a state agency overseeing incarcerated youth, has adopted more than 200 pages of rules. Under the rules, all facilities are required to post the procedure to file a grievance and it’s explained to every child at intake. Both staff and youth who report abuse or harassment are protected from retaliation. Complaints of sexual abuse and harassment are forwarded to Department of Human Services.

Oklahoma Watch asked Dan Little, OSSM’s longtime board chairman, to explain the lack of rules under his leadership. He said he could not answer questions until late October.

OSSM also doesn’t have an employee handbook. A human resources generalist hired after a 2019 audit drafted one with input from the attorney general’s office, but the board never approved it.

“We’ve struggled to get the employee handbook,” said OSSM board of trustees member Geoffrey Simpson, of Tulsa. “It was supposed to be finished years ago and for some reason just hasn’t been completed.”

Simpson said he made sure a grievance policy was posted in the employee break room. But he’s been frustrated by the delay in getting out the employee handbook and felt blindsided by some of the issues brought forth in Pueblo’s lawsuit, he said.

No grievance policy was posted where students could see it.

Frustrations among the students bubbled over in 2019 after what they described as excessive student expulsions, sexual harassment, and other issues. Together, the students organized and submitted grievances to school administration.

Their complaints, obtained by Oklahoma Watch, included sexual harassment by fellow students. A female student reported a male student for staring, stalking and attempting to touch her for an entire semester. The male student wasn’t punished.

In another incident, a female student continued to face sexual harassment after reporting the student to a counselor. When she went back to the counselor to report him again, the counselor promised she wouldn’t have a class with him again. The next semester, she had every class with him.

“He continued to harass me in and out of the classroom,” she wrote anonymously in the complaint. “I couldn’t escape him unless I was literally in my dorm room. It made a huge impact on my academic success, I stared (sic) to struggle in my classes and was constantly distracted. Not only did the harassment affect my personal life, it wrecked my studies.”

Decisions about discipline were being made unilaterally, the students alleged. The students’ main demand was a council of multiple staff members to consider student punishments, safety issues, and handbook changes.

School leaders never created such a council.

Under Title IX, students would know who to direct such complaints to because schools are required to designate a staff member to handle complaints. The law also requires schools to support students who were sexually harassed, even if they don’t file a formal complaint. That includes moving the student or harasser to another class or, if the harasser is a teacher, placing them on administrative leave while complaints are investigated.

The school, through the attorney general’s office, said it isn’t required to follow Title IX because it doesn’t receive federal funding. However, nothing prevents the school from implementing those protections.

Like OSSM, the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics, after which OSSM was modeled, is funded with state appropriations and donations from its foundation. The North Carolina school follows Title IX and staffs each of its two campuses with a compliance officer.

Bryan Gilmer, a spokesman for the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics, said the school is part of the University of North Carolina system, and because they are under the umbrella of a public university, they follow Title IX.

The Legislature has increased its oversight of the school. Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat met last month with his appointees on the OSSM board of trustees, including Sen. Adam Pugh.

Pugh, R-Edmond, said with Cornforth taking over as president, he expects to see structural changes and a culture shift.

“We don’t want any child or any parent or staff or teacher to have a negative experience,” Pugh said. “If the state’s going to oversee this, we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”