Oologah-Talala Schools answers to state board on misconduct allegations

The State Board of Education discussed the current status of Oologah-Talala School District during their virtual meeting Thursday.

After five allegations of sexual misconduct by Oologah-Talala Public School staff in a five year span, the state board of education moved to place the school district on probation.

One month after the move, the school district is taking heat for an un-reported incident. Additionally, they've appointed a new Title IX coordinator to oversee such matters in the future.

"Action at the June 25 meeting was threefold: Once placing them on probationary status for the 2020-2021 school ear, also providing a quarterly report to be provided to the board starting today, and a letter of public reprimand to the district. The quarterly report is being provided today," said Brad Clark General Counsel for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Oologah-Talala School Board member Brian Wigginton provided the first required report: "There are many responsibilities we have as local school board members including governance of the school district, supporting its mission, representing members of our community, complying with federal and state laws and regulations among other responsibilities. Our greatest responsibility is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of our students coupled with an excellent learning environment every day."

UPDATED: Oologah-Talala Schools answers to state board on misconduct allegations

He continued in saying that, "Since October of 2019 when our board received your letter, we have listened to your concerns. We understand that as a board and as a district we must do better. The board of education and our leadership team has continued to address areas of concern since our least meeting on June 19. We are committing to making positive changes and restoring the confidence of students, parents, and district stakeholders."

"Oologah-Talala has a tradition of excellence. We are not defined by the state board's actions. We have been and remain fully committed to our students and families," he said. "School board members and school leaders have been and will continue to evaluate and improve our procedures and processes for investigating student and staff complaints of sex discrimination and sexual harassment with special emphasis on Title IX.”

He said at the Oologah-Talala School Board meeting on July 13 they named Assistant Superintendent Sappington as the Title IX coordinator for the district.

"He is an experienced educator with a heart for children and a deep commitment to student safety and a willingness to tackle increased training of staff members regarding inappropriate statements or actions to or about students and improved education of students regarding reporting to adults any actions by adults that make students uncomfortable," said Wigginton.

Additionally, Wigginton said Title IX training will be held for all school administrators in August.

Teachers will be provided professional development on Title IX and reporting, child harassment, exploitation and misconduct next month, too. Wigginton said student pamphlets on reporting issues to adults will be distributed on the first day of school and added to student handbooks.

"We know that many of our families are concerned with the district's probationary status will diminish the quality of their child's education or the validity of their course work and grades. Please, be assured we will work hard to improve on every area identified and we will provide a quality education to our students as we've done in the past. Their learning will not be interrupted because of this situation," said Wigginton. "There will be no staff member who is unaware of existing and new policies that make it crystal clear that allegations of misconduct with students will be promptly investigated…with decisive action taken…We will ensure our school is safe and welcoming for every student. This will be the forefront of every decision we make."

A member of the state board of education asked Oologah-Talala School Board President Don Tice how the community feels about the school district, and how they feel about sending their children back to O-T schools.

"I believe they feel they can go there safely with the number of kids that have enrolled. A number of students are ready and have enrolled and are expecting to attend," Tice said during the livestreamed meeting while comments of "the community is livid," "no trust," and "We have students who didn't report incidents because they knew they'd be blown off" were left in the comment section.

UPDATED: Oologah-Talala Schools answers to state board on misconduct allegations

Max Tanner will remain in his position as Oologah-Talala Superintendent through the end of the 2021 school year.

Clark commented on the school's duty to report when a recommended termination turns into a resignation.

"In October they said they would report on any instance going forward. On the one hand the individuals sat in front of this body and said they had this under control and mr tanner not 10 days later was advised of a complaint of sexual exploitation or harassment and did not report that to this body," said Clark.

Additionally, the state board was told that Oologah-Talala Superintendent Max Tanner will remain in his position through the end of the 2021 school year.

Official reprimand from the state

On July 21 the Oklahoma State Board of Education issued a letter of reprimand to Oologah Superintendent Max Tanner for "failure to protect students from potential harm."

Oologah-Talala Schools answers to state board on misconduct allegations

State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister thanked the district for hiring a Title IX coordinator during the state’s virtual meeting Monday, just days after issuing a public reprimand.

In this letter, State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister wrote: "The Oklahoma State Board of Education publicly censures members of the Oologah-Talala board of education, and District Superintendent Max Tanner, for your roles in contributing to a school culture in which student complaints were treated dismissively, even while five district teachers have faced loss of their certifications following allegations of sexual misconduct with students.

It is because of these repeated failure to act promptly and appropriately to protect students, and the ongoing failure to implement corrective measures with fidelity, that your District now holds a probationary accreditation status."

She wrote, "A school district board of education, along with the superintendent it employs as chief executive officer bear the ultimate local responsibility for the district's schools and all of their students. After months of increasingly urgent communication with you, the Oologah-Talala superintendent and school board, during the same time frame when student and parent complaints were apparently going unanswered within the district, the State Board of Education must conclude that on Title IX issues you have failed both your duties and your students."

She added that students deserve safety and respect.

"The State Board of Education can assure current and future students of your school district and all Oklahoma public schools that they are entitled to pursue their education in safety and dignity and that when they speak, their voices will be heard," she said. "Would-be educators and school leaders who disregard students have no place in public education. If you are able to prioritize respect for students and work to ensure that this respect is reflected in the district's policies and practices, this board stands ready to assist you in building an equitable and supportive school culture. If, however, you are not prepared to undertake this work, we invite you to stand aside and make way for those who are."

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