Grand jury investigation sought for Shawnee schools

April 7, 2022

Ray Carter

State Sen. Shane Jett has asked Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor to conduct a multi-county grand jury investigation into the Shawnee Public Schools district following citizen reports of a “systemic pattern” of school officials ignoring and covering up alleged student abuse by former coach Ron Arthur.

“I respectfully request a multi-county Grand Jury investigation into the Shawnee Public School Superintendent, Administration, and the Board of Education for the alleged cover-up of Coach Ron Arthur’s calculated grooming and sexual assault of students in the Shawnee Public School and for the administration’s intimidation of students, teachers, parents and victims,” Jett, R-Shawnee, wrote in an April 6 letter sent to O’Connor.

Jett noted public reports indicate Arthur abused Shawnee students for 15 years, yet he remained on staff despite school officials having been notified of alleged abuse the entire time. Following Arthur’s August 2021 arrest, Jett said many individuals met with him, indicating problems in the school were not limited to Arthur.

“The alarming thing that I discovered throughout my hours of interviews is that this narrative is not merely one of sexual predation by the alleged pedophile, Ron Arthur, but also a systemic pattern of school administrators and school board members ignoring his behavior and/or actively protecting Arthur rather than the children he victimized,” Jett wrote.

Jett announced his request at a press conference where he was joined by local law enforcement, a man whose family reported to Shawnee school officials that Arthur engaged in sexual grooming when he was a freshman in 2007, and several local citizens.

“Fifteen years ago, my family and I went through what we thought were the proper channels to report this,” said Rob Hair, a former Shawnee student who reported abuse in 2007. “But nothing of substance was done. Make no mistake, Ron Arthur is and should be the focus of this. He abused me. But there were people in a system that kept him in power to abuse others. Some of those people are still in positions of power within the school system today.”

In one instance, Jett’s letter said it is alleged that a teacher who “reported concerns to both the School Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent was reprimanded for fulfilling the legal mandate to report suspicions of abuse. The reprimand culminated in punitive actions that ultimately led the teacher to seek employment in another school district.”

Hair’s mother, Delinda Curtis, believes school officials attempted to intimidate and retaliate against her family after they reported abuse in 2007.

She recalled that school officials conducted an “in-house” review of Arthur in 2007 and concluded “he was not a threat.” Arthur was only given a three-day suspension and required to read a book on sensitivity. The family subsequently reported the incident to the police, and law enforcement officials reportedly urged the district attorney to press charges, although the district attorney at the time declined to do so.

The family transferred Hair to another district, but he eventually wanted to return to Shawnee to be with longtime friends. When they brought the boy back to Shawnee, Curtis recalled that Shawnee Superintendent Marilyn Bradford called and told her “to come get him” and said, “How dare I go over her head.”

Curtis said Bradford threatened to prevent Hair from attending Shawnee schools again and forced the family to go through extreme measures to re-enroll the youth. Curtis later realized Bradford had no legal authority to deny enrollment to someone living in the district.

“I believe that was intimidation,” said Curtis, who spent more than 39 years as a public-school teacher. “And the only reason I’ve held on to this without becoming super-public on that is honoring education. But the deal is I do feel like that there’s been intimidation.”

Amber Soule, a deputy sheriff and investigator with the Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office, said school personnel records showed Shawnee school officials were aware of repeated infractions and that Arthur routinely ignored restrictions imposed by school officials, yet nothing significant was done.

In 2007, she said Arthur was “told not to have meetings with individual players without having an assistant coach, an administrator, an athletic director, present,” but that he repeatedly ignored that directive.

“He, to me, seemed like he was untouchable,” Soule said. “He didn’t care that he was getting wrote up. He continually did this. This happened over a 15-year time span.”

Soule said Arthur was suspended by school officials three times in 2007 and 2008, and that school records included a written explanation from Arthur discussing why he continued to have repeated contact with a reported victim despite school officials ordering him not to do so. By September 19, 2007, she said that student sought to get out of basketball, which Arthur coached.

“It came out that Ron Arthur had a code of privacy,” Soule said. “This is for his basketball team: What happens in the gym and the locker room stays in the locker room. You don’t tell anyone outside this place what happens. Kids were scared. They are still to this day.”

Soule said there was a gap in Arthur’s personnel file from 2008 to 2015 “where there is absolutely no reprimands, no nothing.” She does not believe Arthur’s behavior changed during that time, and instead views the lack of records as an indication school officials ceased discipline efforts.

“For me, that’s concerning,” Soule said. “What took place in this time that was not ever reported by a student, by a teacher?”

In 2018, when a Title IX investigation was conducted by the school’s athletic director, it generated no significant findings, Soule said. The Title IX investigation included only one statement that appeared to be in a student’s own handwriting, Soule said. The other statements, which largely exonerated Arthur of wrongdoing, were written in “the exact same handwriting” and clearly came from a single individual, she said. Soule indicated she believes students were pressured to sign false statements.

Also in 2018, the mother of another victim reached out to Curtis, leading Curtis to send an email to current Shawnee Superintendent April Grace that highlighted the 2007 abuse and noted continuing reports of Arthur grooming students. She received only a perfunctory response from Grace.

The same year the Title IX investigation supposedly cleared Arthur of wrongdoing, Grace placed another written admonishment in Arthur’s file on April 25, 2018, regarding allegations of inappropriate comments and actions with student athletes, Soule said.

Grace recommended that Arthur be fired, but no termination occurred, Soule said. Arthur was suspended from April 25, 2018, to May 4, 2018, Soule said.

In 2020, an assistant superintendent reprimanded Arthur for educational concerns and professional conduct that could lead to termination, Soule said.

“She recognized that there was a repeated pattern of professional judgement concerns relating to student communication,” Soule said. “He was inappropriately texting students after being told not to. He was having, again, these meetings with students when he wasn’t supposed to.”

In June 2020, Arthur resigned as head basketball coach but was still allowed to remain around students, Soule said.

“He was still meeting with students alone, texting them,” Soule said. “I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of students that he has groomed.”

Jett said the allegations in Shawnee stretched across the administration of three separate superintendents at the school, “any one of whom could have done the right thing and stopped this from occurring, and for whatever reason used very light, lenient reprimands” that “not only did not stop Ron Arthur’s activities, but also sent a chilling effect to the community, to the teachers who are out there trying to protect their students.” In fact, he said allegations of abuse were often “followed by promotions or an award” for Arthur.

Soule said her review of Arthur’s text messages to students “made me physically sick to my stomach.”

Soule said Arthur particularly ingratiated himself to low-income students, typically from a single-parent home with a mostly absent father. The texts indicated he was providing students with money and asking them to go on trips with him, including one to “a casino to stay the night for a graduation present,” Soule said. In one text, she recalled Arthur asked a student for a “goodnight text.”

She said texts indicate that Arthur continued to engage in grooming activity even after his 2021 arrest.

“He is a predator,” Soule said. “He has groomed these kids.”

In response to a request for comment, Cherity Pennington, district communications coordinator for Shawnee Public Schools, said, “We take the responsibility of providing a safe environment for students very seriously. We immediately investigate any and all allegations presented to us pertaining to the safety of children.”

Pennington said that due to “pending litigation” the school was “unable to discuss more” than what was provided by the district in a Aug. 19, 2021, letter from Grace, and said that officials “hope to be able to provide further clarification in the future” as proceedings begin in Arthur’s pending trial.

In her Aug. 19, 2021 letter, Grace said that “transparency in the case of personnel matters is difficult” and claimed she could not address allegations of wrongdoing “at the district level” because “it is against the law.” The letter also alleged that “some of the information shared publicly from Mr. Arthur’s employment record by the sheriff’s department was shared without contacting the district for assistance in understanding the content.”

Four individuals who say they are among Arthur’s victims have come forward so far, but the statute of limitations has expired in two of the cases.

Arthur currently awaits trial on three counts, including first-degree rape. He denies wrongdoing.

Under a law passed in 2016 that took effect the following year, the statute of limitations for rape extends through the victim’s 45th birthday. But that law did not apply retroactively. Prior to 2016, victims had to report the crime within 12 years of its occurrence.

In his letter to the attorney general, Jett wrote, “Our community feels betrayed, justifiably so, by the school leaders who had an opportunity to stop this alleged child predator 15 years ago. Ron Arthur’s work history spanned five counties with as many school districts. We fear that this pattern of alleged abuse and cover up may well cover the totality of his teaching career and not be solely isolated to the Shawnee school district.”

During the press conference, Jett noted Arthur previously taught in the Ponca City, Muskogee, and Stillwater school districts and also worked at a state college where he still interacted with high-school students. Based on the profile of Shawnee students who say Arthur abused them, Jett said it is possible there are other victims who may now be as old as 46 today.

Officials urged other victims to come forward.

“If more victims come forward, I’ll present it to the DA for charges,” Soule said. “I won’t stop. I have worked relentlessly on this case.”

“I’m here for my son and I’m here for the current victim and his parents,” Curtis said. “My purpose is to support and encourage them—and to let any child in any school with any predator to know that he or she matters. No matter how much time goes by, your story does matter.”

“My hope to come of this is to let other victims know that your story does not have an expiration date,” Hair said. “Your voice deserves to be heard.”

NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comment from Shawnee Public Schools.