Education , Culture & the Family
Ray Carter | February 4, 2022
Child abuse, cover-up alleged at Bowring school
Two employees of the Bowring school district say students have been emotionally and even physically mistreated by staff at the Osage County K-8 school, leaving multiple students suicidal, and that nothing has been done by district leaders in response to protect children.
Oklahoma law requires school officials to report incidents of alleged abuse to state authorities. It appears the Bowring superintendent did not do so, and she instead dismissed the allegations based on an internal investigation in which a key figure was not interviewed.
At the same time, the two employees who reported concerns about what they say is a longstanding pattern of abuse are facing termination or have been asked to leave. One of those individuals is also facing the potential loss of her home, which she rents from the school district. That employee also had her water cut off, reportedly at the order of the school superintendent, amidst an Arctic blast despite having paid her bill.
Emotional and Physical Abuse Alleged
Jasmine McCoy-Baum, a custodian at Bowring Public Schools, and Sheri Muniz, secretary for the Bowring school board, say they have either personally witnessed abuse or have been informed of abuse by their children, who attended the school.
In one instance, McCoy-Baum’s daughter reported to both her mother and Bowring Superintendent Nicole Hinkle that a teacher, Deana Price, had been emotionally abusive to students and had slapped one student, a non-verbal child with special needs.
“I just saw his face and the tears in his eyes. I was like, ‘This is not okay.’” —Bowring school custodian Jasmine McCoy-Baum
In a subsequent meeting with Hinkle on Dec. 13, 2021, McCoy-Baum recalled that conversation and asked Hinkle, “Did you call the police?”
An audio recording of the meeting shows Hinkle responded, “It didn’t sound like it was abuse to me.” Hinkle then added, “But you have the same legal obligation to call as I do.” [The names of two students referenced in the audio clip have been censored since they are minors.]
After that exchange, McCoy-Baum went to the Osage County sheriff’s department to report the abuse allegations.
In a separate interview, when asked if she had received reports of abuse and, if so, how those complaints were handled, Hinkle said the school relied on an internal investigation conducted by a law firm, Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, which represents the district.
Hinkle said the law firm found allegations of abuse to be “unsubstantiated,” but conceded that while the investigators spoke with McCoy-Baum, they did not speak to Muniz. McCoy-Baum said her interview with the lawyers did not last long.
In a Dec. 13, 2021, text message with Hinkle, preserved by Muniz, the superintendent referenced an investigator associated with the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold review and wrote, “He is just hired to do an investigation because word got back to me that you and jasmine said I wasn’t doing anything so I called them in.”
Officials with the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold firm represent numerous school districts. Oologah-Talala Public Schools is among those represented by the firm. That district’s failure to address repeated staff abuse of students was so severe it was publicly rebuked by the State Board of Education. The state board noted “recurring incidents of alleged sexual misconduct by teachers who targeted students” and said the Oologah-Talala school board and superintendent failed “to take appropriate actions to protect students from potential harm.”
Hinkle said law enforcement were notified of abuse allegations by individuals other than herself.
Oklahoma law explicitly states, “Every school employee having reason to believe that a student under the age of eighteen (18) years is a victim of abuse or neglect shall report the matter immediately to the Department of Human Services and local law enforcement.”
A 2018 state guide issued by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services states that “child abuse” is “defined by law as harm or threatened harm to a child’s health and safety by a person responsible for the child’s health and safety.” Such abuse can include emotional abuse, which is defined as “mental injury from incessant rejecting, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, corrupting, and denying emotional responsiveness.”
‘Looking Up Online How to Kill Himself’
While Price has been accused of physically manhandling students, McCoy-Baum and Muniz both report Price has engaged in ongoing emotional abuse that has pushed multiple children to the brink of suicide.
On Dec. 8, 2021, McCoy-Baum said Bowring employees were informed that a student had openly discussed suicidal thoughts. Yet the following day she said she witnessed Price verbally badgering that student to an “on and on and on” degree that left McCoy-Baum “feeling sick.” She believed the teacher’s actions were abusive and likely to exacerbate the youth’s suicidal tendencies.
“I just saw his face and the tears in his eyes,” McCoy-Baum said. “I was like, ‘This is not okay.’ Honestly, I was just so disturbed and sickened by it.”
Even after McCoy-Baum briefly intervened, she said Price returned to berating the child. Before stepping out, McCoy-Baum said she stopped to give the child a hug, and Price responded by “screaming at me.”
“She’s done that to not just him multiple times but other students,” McCoy-Baum said.
Price’s duties include teaching special-needs students, history, and coaching P.E. classes for students from third to eighth grade.
Other students have allegedly reported similar mistreatment, including one of Muniz’s children.
A single mother, Muniz has three adopted school-age children living at home with her. All three have special needs. The oldest is now in high school and does not attend Bowring, but the other two children remained in the district until recently.
Her granddaughter also attended Bowring.
Muniz said her son “came to me numerous times, crying” while at the school, but school leaders shrugged it off.
“They told me, ‘He’s in fifth grade, different emotions are going on. Boys cry.’” Muniz said. “They made him cry numerous times by screaming and yelling at him.”
“The matter is now in the hands of the school district to handle administratively as they deem appropriate.” —Mike Fisher, district attorney for Osage and Pawnee counties
Because of his special needs, Price said her son becomes non-responsive when people yell at him, and she discussed his learning style and needs with Price and other school officials.
“I told them, ‘You guys have got to pay attention,’” Muniz said. “‘Don’t call him a liar. Don’t call him lazy. Don’t call him stupid. Don’t call him ignorant. Don’t call him an idiot. You don’t like it; don’t call my son that. I don’t call my son that and nobody else has the right to.’ So I’ve had numerous conversations with her on this, but it continued to get worse.”
Muniz said her son later told her things became worse after Muniz had that conversation with Price. Muniz said the boy reported that Price would tell him “how stupid” he was and how the boy “was not going to amount to anything,” that she was going to get Muniz “fired” from her job and cause the family to “lose our house” and have to live in their car.
The school district owns trailer homes, which it rents at low rates to employees like Muniz. Muniz’s adult daughter and granddaughter also live in a school-owned home.
On one occasion, Muniz said her son’s phone was smashed, and he told her Price had slammed the phone down, damaging it. A day after the alleged phone incident, Muniz said the abuse reached a breaking point for her son. When he did not know the answer to a question, Muniz said the youth reported that Price began berating him. When he tried to leave the classroom, the boy said Price “grabbed him by the arm and slammed him back down in his seat and told him, ‘You are not leaving until I say you can leave.’”
(An audio recording from a subsequent meeting attended by both Muniz and Price shows Price denied grabbing the boy.)
When he did leave the classroom, the child went to Muniz in tears.
“He comes in and he says, ‘I swear, Mom, if you do not transfer me from this school, I am going to kill myself,’” Muniz said.
The threat was not an isolated outburst.
“It breaks my heart because my son was even looking up online how to kill himself on the school computer,” Muniz said.
Muniz’s granddaughter, who also attended Bowring, has significant physical challenges and has had numerous surgeries. Now in fifth grade, she is required to have an inhaler on her at all times, but Muniz said Price forced the girl to run in P.E. despite a medical note saying she should be exempted from that activity and the child’s inhaler was taken from her.
McCoy-Baum said she learned emotional abuse at Bowring also led her daughter to have suicidal thoughts.
“I didn’t realize it, but there’s been more suicidal children than this one student—my daughter included,” McCoy-Baum said. “When we were at the Osage County Sheriff’s Department filing our reports, my daughter admitted for the first time that she has felt suicidal because of this teacher … And that just crushed me. I almost felt like I was a failing parent. It was just very hard to hear.”
A request for comment was sent to Price’s school email address. No response had been received as of publication.
In an emailed statement, Mike Fisher, district attorney for Osage and Pawnee counties, said the results of the Osage County Sheriff’s Office investigation, which involved witness interviews but also included review of the district’s internal report from Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, “fail to support the allegations raised” and that the district attorney’s office determined there is “insufficient evidence to indicate criminal conduct” at Bowring.
“The matter is now in the hands of the school district to handle administratively as they deem appropriate,” Fisher wrote.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs requested a copy of the sheriff’s report from the district attorney’s office. As of publication, no response has been provided to that request.
Since having raised concerns about abuse at Bowring, McCoy-Baum has been placed on administrative leave and proceedings to terminate her employment are underway. The Jan. 7 notice of proposed termination accuses McCoy-Baum of “creating a disturbance on school premises” and “distracting the attention of others.” The notice cites three occasions over two days in late December. McCoy-Baum said one of the instances occurred almost immediately after she saw Price berating the suicidal student, and the other two instances were also related to Price.
Muniz said she has also been asked to leave the school, although she currently remains an employee. If she loses her job, Muniz will be stripped of the right to rent a house from the school district.
“Right now, on top of everything else, I’m facing eviction out of my house because I chose to protect my kids and put them in a different school where they’re not abused,” Muniz said.
On Feb. 2, as an Arctic blast and snow hit Oklahoma, Muniz’s water was cut off.
Hinkle denied the school was responsible for that action.
“I did not order that,” Hinkle said in an interview.
She said the water district sent Muniz a letter notifying her that her water would be cut off if payment was not received by Jan. 25, and added, “The water department told me that she was on their cut-off list.”
Hinkle’s story is contradicted by Sharon Lockman, chair of the Hulah Water District.
In a phone interview, Lockman said Muniz’s water was turned off because the homeowner—the school district—requested it.
“The school called and requested that we shut off the water,” Lockman said.
She said the school superintendent–Hinkle–was the school official who made the shut-off request, and that Hinkle indicated to water-district officials that Muniz had moved out of the school-owned home and it was vacant. Lockman indicated the district would not have ended water service otherwise.
“We knew that she had paid her bill,” Lockman said.
Muniz provided documentation that her bill is paid in full. Her most recent bill showed she owed $85.30 by Jan. 16 with that amount increasing to $92.80 if paid after that date. The 25th day of each month is the cutoff for payment to avoid having water turned off. Muniz provided a receipt showing that on Jan. 25 she paid $100 to the Hulah Water district.
After the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs contacted Hinkle and the Hulah Water District to inquire about the situation, Muniz reported that her water was turned on again.
Oklahoma law prohibits school officials from retaliating against employees who report suspected abuse.
The law states that “no employer, supervisor, administrator, governing body or entity shall interfere with the reporting obligations of any employee or other person or in any manner discriminate or retaliate against the employee or other person who in good faith reports suspected child abuse or neglect, or who provides testimony in any proceeding involving child abuse or neglect.”
Among policy changes adopted at Bowring in the past year, McCoy-Baum said, is the imposition of a new rule that requires students to leave cell phones in their lockers and prohibits students from taking phones into a classroom. Among other things, that rule prevents students from recording teachers in the classroom.
The Bowring district began the 2021-2022 school year with roughly 60 students. Due to transfers, that number has since fallen to 51, Muniz said. Among those who have withdrawn children from the district are McCoy-Baum and Muniz.
Although she now feels her children are protected, McCoy-Baum said she still worries for children from other families who remain in the district.
“I can do what I can as a parent, but leaving those kids in that school to fend for themselves is not okay,” McCoy-Baum said. “I’m not okay with that. They need help. They need a lot of help.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.