Oklahoma schools ignoring long-term staff abuse of students
April 4, 2022
In 2007, Delinda Curtis notified the Shawnee Public Schools superintendent, athletic director, and at least one school board member that her son had reported being sexually groomed and mistreated by basketball coach Ron Arthur. Among other things, Arthur had fondled the boy’s testicles, encouraged him to visit porn sites, and made sexual comments.
Nothing significant was done in response. Arthur remained on staff in Shawnee schools for another 14 years before a warrant was issued for his arrest in August 2021.
“Now my son’s a grown man,” Curtis said, “and all this time I’ve had this sick feeling that that guy’s still in the system, and he’s got a playground now of ways to mess with kids.”
Staff abuse of children has occurred, and is likely still occurring, in schools statewide, and numerous individuals have lost their teaching licenses due to reported abuse. But that information remains closely held.
In 2015, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law stating that any time school district officials decide to fire or not re-employ a teacher based on “grounds that could form the basis of criminal charges sufficient” to result in revoking an individual’s state certificate for abuse of children, the district must report the event to the State Board of Education.
Since then 178 certificate actions and/or proceedings have been conducted against school staff.
Getting that single data point is not easy. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs submitted an open-record request to the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) on July 20, 2021, asking for the number of teaching certificates revoked since 2015, and how many were revoked due to the 2015 law.
OSDE did not provide a response until March 4, 2022, more than seven months later, and the agency said it “does not maintain a record of the specific method used to report certification concerns” and could not identify the number of teachers who lost certificates thanks to the 2015 law.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who leads OSDE, is currently a candidate for governor.
Teachers who have been stripped of their certificates for child abuse include some of the state’s highest-profile educators.
In 2018, Stillwater Junior High School teacher Alberto Morejon was the face of the state teacher walkout and a prominent opponent of school-choice efforts. In 2021 Morejon was sentenced to 10 years in prison as part of a plea deal for “engaging in sexual communication with a minor.” (Morejon also faced prosecution on a separate charge of “forcible oral sodomy.”) Morejon’s reported victims were 14-year-old girls.School-district officials specifically told students not to discuss the issue with their parents.
While cases like Morejon’s can shatter community trust, there are even worse incidents. In districts across the state, predators have been allowed to remain on staff for years and even decades after allegations were first raised, based on public reports and documents.
Former state Sen. Kyle Loveless, a Republican lawmaker who authored the 2015 law to crack down on teacher predators, has said he wanted the law to be stronger by including penalties for school districts that fail to respond appropriately.
“That was always frustrating, districts that are a long-term problem,” Loveless said. “And it always took one case that would illuminate it, and then you would get other people saying, ‘Oh, that happened to me,’ or, ‘We’ve turned a blind eye to this for years.’”
But he could not generate majority support for language penalizing school districts that fail to act. Simply requiring better reporting of abuse proved challenging. Loveless recalled that many lawmakers insisted such abuse was not occurring in their districts.
But Shawnee is just one of many districts proving those lawmakers were wrong.
In 2007, when Curtis’ son, Rob Hair, was a freshman, he informed his parents that Arthur had engaged in sexual grooming.
Curtis said she took a written copy of the allegations to the Shawnee athletic director and met with the Shawnee superintendent at the time, Marilyn Bradford, and the assistant superintendent, and also notified a member of the Shawnee school board.
Afterwards, Arthur was given a three-day suspension and required to read a book on sensitivity, Curtis said, but he remained a school employee.
In 2018, Curtis said another mother informed her that Arthur “was grooming some other kids.” On April 4, 2018, Curtis emailed then-Shawnee Superintendent April Grace, recounting her son’s story and noting the continuing reports of Arthur engaging in improper behavior with students.
“I do not know if there is anything on this coach’s file from over ten years ago, but my gut and my son’s gut says that this guy has not experienced a miracle cure from what we and professionals outside of the school would consider as ‘grooming kids’ such as a pedophile would do,” Curtis wrote.
Grace did not respond until April 16, 2018, nearly two weeks later, writing, “As to any courses of action previously taken I do not know at this time. There are certain legal parameters in which we have to operate as I am sure you are aware. Again, I do appreciate you sharing your experience and concerns with me and we take these things very seriously and I do appreciate you taking the time to notify us and share the information.”
Grace, who is now a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, did not provide any other response. Another three years passed before Arthur was arrested. He has still not been tried on the charges filed against him.
Arthur was allowed to stay on staff at Shawnee schools despite repeated infractions through the years. An official with the Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office reported that eight admonishments and suspensions were included in Arthur’s school disciplinary records.
In 2007, Curtis recalled her son did not want to report abuse to school officials, saying, “What difference will it make? I know what will happen. I’ll be the one to go down, and nothing will happen to him.”
“We reassured him that, no, that’s not what’s going to happen,” Curtis recalled. “And then, what he said would happen—actually happened. Exactly. Just sickening.”
Other Districts Overlook Abuse
Shawnee is not the only instance where reports of school staff abusing children have apparently been ignored by school administrators.
A lawsuit recently filed against Kingfisher Public Schools states that coaches and some players had “committed acts of bullying, hazing, and sexual harassment” against the John Doe plaintiff, a former student and member of the football team. The alleged abuse included “daily floggings” with partially shredded towels with knotted ends that “would sometimes only stop when the victim began to bleed,” football players being forced to fight in bouts that included choking, required participation in drills banned by the National Football League due to the risk of significant injury, and sexual assault in which players held the boy down while another placed “his naked anus on John Doe No. 1’s nose and the aggressor’s scrotum on John Doe No. 1’s face.”
The petition states that “multiple other sexual assaults were perpetrated upon other football players between 2008 (if not earlier) and continuing through 2021” and that coaches, particularly Coach Jeff Myers, were either aware of, or even participated in, many of the various forms of abuse.
The petition states that the boy’s father met with the Kingfisher superintendent, principal, and at least three school board members, but school officials never launched any investigation.
“The abuse is ongoing; children continue to be victimized,” the petition states. “Since 2008, the earliest-discovered instance of abuse, the players on the Football Team have changed, the administration of Kingfisher Public Schools has changed, the assistant coaches on the Football Team have changed. The abuses suffered by players on the Football Team and, of course, the head coach, Defendant Myers, are the only two things that have remained constant in the last thirteen years.”
In the Oologah-Talala School District, a petition in a lawsuit filed in November 2020 states that teacher Daniel Bodine “repeatedly preyed on Jane Doe No. 1 even after the District was informed of the sexual predator’s misconduct via the District’s agents and employees.” The alleged victim was a special-education student, and the petition states that Bodine “abused Plaintiff after the District had actual notice of Bodine’s misconduct.”
The petition also states that school officials chose to “abjectly disbelieve multiple victims.”
The State Board of Education publicly reprimanded Oologah-Talala Public Schools in July 2020, citing “recurring incidents of alleged sexual misconduct by teachers who targeted students” as the Oologah-Talala school board and superintendent failed “to take appropriate actions to protect students from potential harm.”
Prior to an October 2019 meeting with state officials, four teachers at Oologah-Talala Public Schools faced allegations of sexualized misconduct with students. Approximately 10 days after that October 2019 meeting, Oologah-Talala Public Schools received a report of inappropriate sexualized misconduct by yet another, fifth employee.
The State Board of Education noted that the school again failed to promptly report the allegation and investigate the matter.
A petition in a lawsuit filed in April 2021 against Salina Public Schools states that John Q. Horner, a middle-school teacher who had taught for 30 years, “repeatedly preyed on female students, even after parents and students informed the School District of the sexual predator’s misconduct via the School District’s agents and employees.”
The petition states that one girl complained about Horner’s actions to her mother and grandmother in 2014, and the grandmother “immediately went to the Salina Middle School and spoke with the principal.” The petition states that the principal told the grandmother that “she believed the teenage girl was embellishing her story because the teenage girl was performing poorly at math.” The girl’s mother subsequently met with the principal and received a similar response.
In 2015, a male student informed his mother that Horner had forced a female student to sit on his lap, against the girl’s wishes. The mother called the Salina Middle School principal to report the allegations, and the petition said the principal stated that “an entire group of boys had actually come forward and talked to the principal about Horner’s actions towards the girls.”
About the same time, the petition stated that another mother contacted the Salina principal and superintendent to report Horner’s treatment of her eighth-grade daughter.
But an arrest warrant was not issued for Horner until Jan. 16, 2020, years after parents reported abuse, and the arrest occurred because parents notified police of the allegations. The petition stated that school-district officials “specifically told students not to discuss the issue with their parents” and that one student “was threatened with being sent to the office for discipline” when overheard discussing Horner’s behavior.
At Ninnekah Public Schools, girls’ basketball coach and PE teacher Ron Akins was arrested on June 26, 2021, and charged with sexual battery and rape by instrumentation. A Sept. 15, 2021, letter from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister noted the Ninnekah district had “no written record of any allegation of impropriety toward female students” even though former Ninnekah Principal David Pitts had “apparent knowledge of student and even law enforcement concerns” about Akins, including when students “had alleged that coaching decisions were influenced by the coach’s sexually charged attitude toward players.”
The letter stated that former Ninnekah Superintendent Todd Bunch admitted that law enforcement officials had notified him in 2015 of concerns regarding Akins’ behavior with students at his previous employing district, Friend Public Schools. Yet Akins remained on staff for another five years.
In 2019, Bill Smith, who taught at Prague Elementary and Middle Schools for three decades, was accused of lewd acts. Smith died in a crash while the investigation was ongoing.
Cameron Spradling, an attorney who represented an alleged victim from Prague, told a TV news station that families of additional alleged victims began calling him after Smith’s death. Those reporting abuse reportedly ranged in age from five years old to up to 35, covering the entire length of Smith’s teaching career.
The investigation was not launched because of any action taken by Prague school administrators, but because a counselor from a mental health clinic in South Carolina called Oklahoma police to report that abuse had been alleged by a boy patient who previously lived in Prague in 2017. Smith was a two-time teacher of the year.
Parents Seek Accountability
Victims and their families have sought, through various means, to bring accountability to schools that ignore predators in their midst.
For some, the focus has been on speaking out publicly, hoping to shame school officials into improving the system.
But often, parents have had to resort to lawsuits.
In January 2017, Arnold Cowen, a teacher’s aide in the Perry school district, was arrested and charged with 21 criminal counts for lewd or indecent acts to children under 16 and aggravated possession of child pornography. That same year, a federal lawsuit was filed seeking damages from the district because school officials had ignored or silenced multiple girls who reported abuse. The students were as young as 10.
The Perry district ultimately agreed to pay $3.5 million to the victims’ families.
However, some districts have chosen to fight in court. The Kingfisher district recently rejected a $1.5 million settlement offer in that lawsuit.
And even when parents are promised a settlement, schools may drag their feet.
The McLoud school district agreed to pay $1.4 million to the families of 14 victims after former teacher Kimberly Crain was convicted in 2013 on 31 counts for taking nude and provocative pictures of students who were between seven- and nine-years old. Reportedly, many of the pictures were taken in Crain’s classroom, which was next door to the principal’s office.
Of the $1.4 million settlement, $1 million came from the district’s insurance coverage while the remainder was to come from property taxes through three annual payments.
But in 2017, the McLoud district asked to delay the property-tax share of the payments for at least another year, writing, “For reasons unknown to the undersigned counsel for the School District, the $400,000 judgment was not included on the School District’s 2016 estimate of needs submitted to the County Excise Board and therefore the sinking levy fund process was not engaged in order that a payment could be made in 2017.”
Some officials are promoting school-choice policies as one way to empower and aid parents whose children are effectively trapped in schools where administrators refuse to remove child abusers.
The lack of options has been cited as a problem by some parents.
In 2019, Peckham Public School Superintendent Gary Young was accused of multiple incidents of sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual harassment by former students and coworkers. Lynn Courtney, a longtime critic of Young, said the abuse had been occurring for years, going back to the school years of her oldest son, who was then about to turn 50.
“All I know is I sent five kids through there because I didn’t have a choice,” Courtney told NonDoc, an online news site. “I’d have had to pay to send them somewhere else, and I couldn’t afford it.”
Some lawsuits have tacitly noted parents risk violating the law themselves if they pull a child from an abusive school and are unable to send the child to another district or other education option. A June 2021 petition filed in the lawsuit against the Oologah-Talala district noted the victim “was required to attend school” under Oklahoma law.
During recent debate on Senate Bill 1647, which would allow a share of state funding to follow a student to any school, including private schools, state Sen. Shane Jett pointed to the scandal in Shawnee Public Schools.
“For 15 years, a coach was molesting children in our schools,” said Jett, R-Shawnee, adding that Shawnee school officials “covered it up and covered it up and covered it up.”
“The reason I co-authored this bill (was) so those parents could have a choice to hold accountable the administration who treats them like they have no option,” Jett said. “And this isn’t just happening in Shawnee. It’s happening in Cleveland, Oklahoma. It’s happening in Oologah. It’s happening all over where they run over parents, run over teachers who try to bring attention to wrongdoing in the classroom.”
In the meantime, in districts that fail to protect children from predators, parents say students have been victimized not only by the abuser, but by those who allowed the abuse to continue.
“I hold Shawnee administration responsible, personally responsible, for having more cases since my son’s case,” Curtis said. “It could’ve and should’ve stopped. It should have stopped in 2007.”