Oklahoma teachers live in fear of restrictive state laws

The state’s one-year law, HB 1775, has made teachers unsure how to introduce the book Killers of the Flower Moon to their students, as members of the public told author David Grann during his speech at Oklahoma City University last week. The law has made educators worried about how they are doing their job. (Photo by Janice Francis-Smith)

OKLAHOMA CITY – Author David Grann had just finished presenting his book, The Moonflower Slayerswhen a member of the public asked a question weighing heavily on the minds of teachers in Oklahoma and the country.

“I have a hunch that a teacher in, say, Norman, Oklahoma, who wanted to use your book would be in big trouble, and…may find themselves rhetorically attacked and possibly forced to resign,” said Lloyd Musselman, a retired educator who spent 38 years with Oklahoma City University, where Grann spoke.

The reference was to Summer Boismier, who made national headlines when she quit after sharing with her students a QR code to access free e-books from the Brooklyn Library. The code would give students access to titles that have been banned from some Oklahoma school libraries due to complaints from parents.

Boismier’s case is the focal point of why educators in Oklahoma think this is a troubled and scary time to be a teacher. Many are baffled by House Bill 1775, passed last October, which prohibits schools from teaching the “concept” that “every individual should experience discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of race or sex”. among other provisions.

The meaning of the phrase is nebulous, but the mere perception that an educator violated the new law has resulted in threats to the livelihoods — and even the lives — of Oklahoma teachers in recent weeks. Educators have sounded the alarm over rising school censorship and the assault on academic freedom across the country.

In July, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers and others in Oklahoma City, called those who champion the cause of stifling academic freedom “extremists.”

As our country diversifies, these fearmongers prey on racial and economic anxieties, stoking racial and ethnic resentment and tribalism,” she said. “They promote despicable conspiracies like the ‘grand replacement theory’ while misrepresenting legitimate academic fields like critical race theory.

“That’s not conservatism. That’s extremism,” Weingarten told the 2022 AFT convention. “The radical forces of MAGA are dividing Americans from one another, spreading lies and hatred, and violate democratic norms to enrich themselves and seize power.”

In interviews, Boismier called herself a “walking violation of HB 1775”.

“I chose to resign of my own free will, dismissal was never on the table,” Boismier said in an interview with Education week. “I left because it’s an impossible situation to do what I’m doing with HB 1775 hanging over my head.”

The vague provision of HB 1775 articulates violation about little more than the emotional reaction of students exposed to unpleasant historical truths. It’s hard for educators to do their jobs without breaking the law, teachers said.

“What’s offensive to one person isn’t offensive to another,” said Sherry Johnson, who previously worked for Mustang Public Schools through a temp agency. The district’s accreditation was downgraded in July, as was that of the Tulsa Public Schools, as punishment for violations of HB 1775. Mustang’s punishment was imposed for a voluntary drill in which students were asked to forward or backward depending on whether or not they had been discriminated against.

“We had a discussion at dinner time tonight where a parent took their child and chose homeschooling because one of the stories on the curriculum is the story of Martin Luther King and they don’t didn’t feel like that was what they wanted their child to find outside,” Johnson said. “This is where we are, and it’s very upsetting. There was a sixth-grade social studies assignment I was asked to do, and…I don’t know if I want to do it now.

“It scares you to take on something like this,” she said.

Oklahoma schools are already understaffed. The Oklahoma State School Board Association reported last week that more than 1,000 vacancies remained statewide, the highest number of vacancies on record since OSSA began tracking eight years ago.

Boismier’s resignation was compounded by the ugly public reaction that followed, family friend Katharine Carson said.

“She became the scapegoat,” Carson said, as heads of state personally attacked Boismier. “She was doxed (where personal information was posted on the internet); my friend had to live her life in fear.

In an attempt to comply with HB 1775, public schools in Normandy asked their teachers to inventory all the books available in their classroom to reassess their suitability. No books have been banned by public schools in Normandy, according to school administrators, although 42 books have been banned in at least one of Oklahoma’s more than 500 school districts.

The list of books banned by some Oklahoma schools includes The foreigners by Oklahoma author SE Hinton and the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass by the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Books are usually removed from school libraries due to complaints from parents.

NPS Superintendent Nick Migliorino said the NPS did not determine Boismier violated HB 1775 and did not terminate or suspend her.

But that hasn’t deterred Ryan Walters, the education secretary appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt — who is currently running for superintendent of public instruction in the November election — from taking direct aim at Boismier.

Walters pointed out on his campaign website that he wrote a letter to the Oklahoma State Board of Education demanding that Boismier’s teaching license be revoked.

“There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom,” Walters wrote. “Ms. Boismier’s giving students access to banned and pornographic material is unacceptable, and we need to make sure she doesn’t go to another district and do the same thing.

A group of 14 Republican lawmakers followed up by asking the State Board of Education to launch an investigation into whether Boismier violated HB 1775.

Faced with the false accusation surrounding the “pornographic” material, Boismier, through her social media accounts, revealed that she had received death threats and had to leave her home after her address was published online by her critics.

“To everyone who has expressed concern for my safety, thank you,” Boismier tweeted on Sept. 4. “I have a place to stay for now and I have absolutely no intention of stopping talking.”

“(Secretary Walters) should apologize and pay for 24/7 security for the next two years or until you feel safe at home,” Don @dididoc1 tweeted. “He should also compensate you for the loss of your job and punitive damages. His behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

Oklahoma Democrats tweeted, “Walters has created a hostile work environment.”

“This whole incident blew way beyond the initial complaint,” Migliorino said. “Social media outrage, inaccurate news reporting and cynical political maneuvering have drawn attention to our district…

“We would never want an educator to live in fear of losing their hard-earned certifications and licenses,” Migliorino wrote. “Threatening teachers to revoke their licensure and certification is counterproductive, divisive, and ultimately not in the best interests of students.”

A year after the bill was passed, the state Board of Education issued guidelines on how HB 1775 should be implemented. But the bill itself is so vague that such guidelines are of little use, according to Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

Bishop, in a statement following the July school board meeting, said recent events “have sparked fear among OAS members.”

“The fuzziness in the language of HB 1775 presents unnecessary challenges to an already stressed system,” Bishop wrote. “This creates significant concern among teachers and staff, who may now be afraid to teach parts of the state standards for fear of retaliation.”

October will mark one year since the American Civil Liberties Union, the Oklahoma State conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Indian Territory of the American Indian Movement and other groups sued the state in district court for HB 1775, arguing that the law interferes with the rights of First Amendment students and educators to learn and speak about American history.

ACLU Oklahoma is currently talking with teachers, compiling additional information to provide to the court, but the courts have yet to consider the arguments. It’s a slow process, said Cassidy Fallik, communications director.

“HB 1775 is so poorly written — in places it is literally indecipherable — that districts and teachers have no way of knowing what concepts and ideas are prohibited,” said Emerson Sykes, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech Project, Privacy, and Technology. “The bill was intended to ignite a political reaction, not to serve a legitimate educational interest.”

Once passed, Oklahoma lawmakers offered no examples of critical race theory being taught in Oklahoma schools. Similar-worded bills aimed at restricting teaching about race and racism were introduced in as many as 36 states by the time Oklahoma passed HB 1775, all part of a national movement apparently politically charged with restricting educational freedoms.

Grann told his Oklahoma City University audience on Tuesday that he was inspired to become a storyteller by his grandmother, who told him stories about the Holocaust in hopes he would pass on that story. to future generations.

“I also think the truth will eventually come out,” Grann said. “I’m fundamentally an idealist, and when I write a lot about racial injustices or sins, I do so to expose them in order to bring them to light, so that we can see them, understand them and learn from them.”