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Watchdog agency failed to perform required inspections at elite Oklahoma high school plagued by culture of harassment

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.

An Oklahoma Watch investigation last year revealed a pervasive culture of harassment at an elite Oklahoma high school. StateImpact’s Beth Wallis spoke with Jennifer Palmer, the reporter behind the story, about a recent update: the agency responsible for addressing those issues failed to perform required inspections for 16 years.

Beth Wallis: Jennifer, thanks for joining me.

Jennifer Palmer: Thanks for having me.

Wallis: So let's back up and explain the school that we're talking about today, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. Tell me a little bit about what the school is and what sets it apart from other high schools in the state.

Palmer: This is a very unique school. This is a residential high school for 11th and 12th graders, and focuses on math and science, as the name implies. And these are really high achieving kids, right? You know, academically advanced. They're living on campus and taking these really advanced classes, really college-level kind of work.

But it's also really unique in its oversight. It's not under the State Department of Education, which was somewhat of a surprise to me when doing some of my early reporting on the school. It's a separate state agency, so it has its own Board of Trustees that oversees it. But very little involvement from really any other outside entity.

Wallis: So four years ago, state auditors visited the system for a routine financial review, but ended up leaving with some very troubling information about a high ranking school administrator. What did they find?

Palmer: Yeah, there was a lot that came out in that audit that was not related to finances. And, what I discovered in talking to folks who were there at the time — lots of former employees and even current employees — was that that really seemed like the only opportunity that they had had to report some of this sexual harassment that they'd experienced. Also just lots of misogyny, inappropriate comments, things like that.

And, you know, for the longest time, the source of a lot of that was essentially the HR [Human Resources] person. So there was nowhere else for them to go. So when the auditors came on campus, it was a little bit of an opportunity.

And there were some reports made to the auditors, but the auditors were like, “Well, that's not really part of our purview.” They were there to look at finances, and they did have some findings related to that. But it was an interesting audit because their main topline finding was related to that administrator and the “harmful tone at the top of the agency” was kind of how they put it.

Wallis: Last summer, you published an investigation that revealed even though this administrator resigned, the toxic culture didn't stop. What did your investigation find regarding how employees were being treated?

Palmer: I talked to a lot of former employees and current employees also. And, you know, that type of behavior just continued, which was somewhat surprising. I mean, some of these women who were there said, “We really thought that when he retired and left, things would be different.” And things were somewhat different.

But there were other male employees who made similar types of comments. And also, it wasn't just comments. Some of the female employees described a culture basically where the leaders of the school would kind of sweep these incidents under the rug. They would deal with them kind of secretly or quietly. And then ultimately, the men who were accused of impropriety would be able to either keep their jobs or resign on their own terms. Whereas the women were the ones often pushed out or fired or, you know, facing some other consequence to their jobs.

Wallis: And after your investigation, students began coming forward about inappropriate treatment. What kinds of issues were these USM students facing?

Palmer: That's right. The first story really focused on the staff and kind of on the administrative side of the school. But then there's a whole other side of the school, which is the teaching staff and the professors and the kids who, like I said, live on campus in these dorms and are supervised there by adults. And their stories, you know, really echoed what was happening on the administrative side, unfortunately.

Some of the students, though, described lots of hateful comments from some of these adults. And also sexual harassment, inappropriate comments. Most of the students who reported these behaviors were either girls or they were LGBTQ students. That seemed to be the ones who faced the most.

Wallis: So, one detail I thought stands out so starkly — “the school operated for three decades without an employee handbook or agency rules prohibiting sexual harassment or abuse.” That's from your article. I think most people would wonder, how can that be?

Palmer: It's pretty startling. And that seems like such a basic thing, right? But a lot of this traced back to, how can they hold people accountable if there's no written rules to follow, right? It's really hard to reprimand an employee for misbehavior when you don't have a set of rules or guidelines that you can point back to and say, “You agreed to follow these.” So that was something that was really interesting.

There was, at one point after the audit, they hired a human resources director, and she worked on a handbook and actually got it to a draft. But for some reason, that was never approved by the board. It was never implemented. And so it wasn't until just recently that the Board of Trustees there was able to finally implement an employee handbook.

Wallis: Okay, so that brings us to the present. Last week, you published an article I found so interesting. The watchdog agency that should have been responsible for health and safety inspections at OSSM didn't do that for 16 years. What is that agency and why did it stop checking in on OSSM for so long?

Palmer: Right. This is a separate agency that was created several decades ago with a specific purpose to investigate complaints and do annual inspections at state-run facilities where kids are housed. And there's a couple of those around the state there, there aren't too many anymore. Three of them are schools, including OSSM.

And what happened was, I requested the latest inspection report because I knew that this agency had that responsibility. The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth is the name of the agency, and their division that does these inspections is the Office of Juvenile System Oversight. So it's that office's specific job to do these inspections.

When I requested the latest inspection report, they did some digging, and the latest was from 2008. They couldn't find anything more recent. Now, the current director, Annette Jacobi, was not there in 2008. And they did some research and tried to determine why those haven't taken place in so long and couldn't really find a good answer.

But their legal staff looked at the statute, and they determined that it does seem to fall under their purview. Now, it's a little bit different than some of their facilities because these kids, they're not incarcerated. They're there by choice. So that does set it apart a little bit. But there are other examples of facilities that are similar. So they brought it to their board and decided to restart those inspections.

Wallis: And when are those inspections supposed to restart?

Palmer: I believe this year. By statute, they are required to do annual inspections once or twice a year. And these are kind of surprise inspections.

They're not there to look at academics. They're there specifically for the health and safety of kids. They do anonymous interviews with residents and staff. They pull personnel files and look for any red flags or any warning signs there. They do things like look at fire inspection reports. You know, just generally give the students an opportunity to say if they feel unsafe or report any bad behavior. I mean, lots of things that have been issues for a long time. So this would have been really helpful to have had in place over all those years.

Wallis: You know, I think that's the big question here — had this agency been around to intervene, would this harassment against employees and students been allowed to persist unchecked in the way that it did?

Palmer: Yeah, I don't know. Probably not. A lot of the folks that I talked to just really felt like they had nowhere to turn. And this certainly would have given them a neutral party with an agency that was separate from the school where they could have at least made a complaint.

But I will say, the school has made other changes. You know, this one [the agency failing to perform inspections] was not in their hands. The agency decided to restart the inspections.

But the school itself has made some reforms as well, including an anonymous reporting system where students can now report anything anonymously or not anonymously if they feel comfortable with that, just to kind of give them another way to get some of this reported and out in the open. And, you know, they've got a new student handbook that's going to have that [new policy] also as a resource for these kids. So, yeah, they are definitely making some reforms and some changes.

Wallis: Have they hired an HR person yet?

Palmer: Not that I know of, no. That would be another step that they could definitely take.

Wallis: That was Jennifer Palmer, education reporter for the nonprofit news outlet, Oklahoma Watch. Jennifer, thanks so much for talking with me.

Palmer: Thanks for having me.

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.