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Under Ryan Walters, Oklahoma lost federal funding to help schools respond to tragedies

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters is seen through a television camera while conducting an interview in June 2023.
Dylan Goforth
The Frontier
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters is seen through a television camera while conducting an interview in June 2023.

A crisis team that helps schools around Oklahoma address emergencies like student deaths and natural disasters lost federal funding under State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Oklahoma State Department of Education a four-year grant for $996,855 in 2019 to create a crisis team that could respond to any district facing an emergency and offer training.

In the spring of 2023, the Department of Justice opened another funding opportunity through the same program. The federal agency confirmed the State Department of Education didn’t apply by the deadline in May of that year.

Dan Isett, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, said in an email that the agency is in the process of applying for similar Department of Justice grant opportunities this year.

He said positions with the team are paid for through state funds and other federal grants that allow the team to continue functioning. Isett declined to answer follow-up questions about what other federal grants were funding the team.

The crisis response team is made up mostly of State Department of Education employees who volunteer to help and receive no additional salary, said Michelle Strain, who led the team from 2021 to 2023. She said she resigned because her beliefs didn’t align with Walters’ vision for the agency.

The Department of Justice grant paid for one full-time team leader and travel across the state. The grant also covered the cost of materials for local school districts to go through a three-day crisis training, Strain said.

A State Department of Education newsletter from October 2023 said the state agency was losing a grant to cover the cost of training and school districts would have to pay for the curriculum themselves.

The state agency’s handling of federal grants came under scrutiny in 2023 after Walters said the agency wouldn’t pursue grant opportunities that didn’t align with “Oklahoma values.” Walters didn’t define what those values were.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who leads the education appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives, pushed for a requirement in the education budget passed last year for Walters to seek approval from the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore before deciding not to reapply for any federal grants. McBride expressed concerns at the time thatthe State Department of Education was failing to submit grant applications. The law went into effect in July 2023, a month after the Department of Education missed the deadline for the Department of Justice grant.

The state crisis team is supposed to offer support to schools after student suicides and other tragedies. School officials in Owasso got help from the team after the death of nonbinary high school student Nex Benedict.

The state medical examiner’s office found that Benedict died by suicide in February after a fight with classmates in a school bathroom, though they also sustained injuries to their head, neck and torso. The incident placed national scrutiny on Oklahoma’s treatment of transgender and nonbinary students, and the federal Department of Education launched an investigation that is still ongoing into how the Owasso district handled sex-based harassment. An Owasso spokesman said the district continues to cooperate with the federal investigation.