School’s response to student abuse raises questions
July 23, 2020
Officials from the Oologah-Talala Public Schools, recently rebuked by the State Board of Education for failing to take seriously repeated accusations of sexual misconduct by teachers, provided an update to state board members during the group’s Thursday meeting.
But details of that update, combined with the sometimes-defiant tone of the presentation, may have raised additional questions about whether the district is taking the sexual-abuse-allegations issue seriously, despite the school having been “accredited with probation” by the state board.
“Oologah-Talala has a tradition of excellence and we are not defined by the state board’s actions,” Brian Wigginton, a member of the Oologah-Talala school board, told members of the State Board of Education. “We have been and remain fully committed to our students and families.”
In a public document regarding Oologah-Talala Public Schools, the state board had 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.”
The state board said those failures may have violated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law that prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” under “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Prior to an October 2019 meeting with state officials, four teachers at Oologah-Talala Public Schools faced allegations of sexualized misconduct with students. One of those individuals, Chase Kime, was issued “at least four written admonishments and directives from the District regarding his inappropriate and offensive conduct with students, which ranged from verbal to physical incidents,” the State Board of Education document notes. “The final such incident was acted upon, after a student recorded a cell phone video of Mr. Kime with his arm around a student’s waist, appearing to stroke her back under her outer clothing.”
Approximately 10 days after the October 2019 meeting with the State Board of Education, Oologah-Talala Public Schools received another report of inappropriate sexualized misconduct by an employee.
“Rather than promptly reporting these matters and conducting an investigation, actions you had so recently assured the State Board that you would take if such allegations arose, you did neither,” the State Board of Education document states. “Moreover, it then became increasingly apparent that a lack of urgency toward sexual misconduct and the exploitation of students was embedded in your leadership and administrative culture. Instead of conducting an investigation into students’ Title IX allegations about a District employee last fall, the Oologah-Talala Title IX Coordinator was completely dismissive of the allegations, including in an exchange with OSDE staff in December 2019. This minimization of student complaints mirrored Superintendent (Max) Tanner’s November 2019 mischaracterization of one reported incident to the OSDE’s own Title IX Coordinator as a ‘he said/she said scenario,’ even though the students’ accounts had already been substantiated. The State Board has reason to believe that superintendent Max Tanner, contrary to reason and despite his responsibilities as leader of the District, elected not to act upon his receipt of specific allegations of sexual harassment for at least twenty days.”
The State Board of Education publicly censured the Oologah-Talala board of education and Tanner “for your roles in contributing to a school culture in which student complaints were treated dismissively, even while five District teachers have faced the loss of their certification following allegations of sexualized misconduct with students. It is because of these repeated failures 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.”
The Oologah-Talala Public Schools board of education is now required to make quarterly reports updating the State Board of Education on how it is addressing those issues. The district’s presentation at the board’s July 23 meeting was the first of those mandated reports.
During his presentation, Wigginton told the state board that the Oologah-Talala district has hired a new Title IX coordinator, increased staff training on sexual-harassment issues, and provided students and families with additional information regarding their rights.
“Our board has consistently sought the maximum discipline in instances involving employee abuse or exploitation of students,” Wigginton said.
However, Karen L. Long, an attorney with the Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold firm who represented Oologah-Talala during Thursday’s online meeting, acknowledged that the school's new Title IX coordinator has no background in Title IX issues.
Long’s role in prior investigations was also a point of contention during the meeting.
Board member Kurt Bollenbach noted that Long had previously served as the Oologah-Talala district’s investigator for Title IX complaints.
“Are you still acting as an independent investigator for the school, or are you now representing the school district itself?” Bollenbach asked.
“I’ve always been an attorney for the district,” Long replied.
Bollenbach asked if Long would serve as the Title IX investigator in the future if additional allegations of sexual wrongdoing by staff arise, “or will you be advising the district?”
“I don’t think there’s been a decision made regarding that,” Long said.
Long defended the practice of a district having its own lawyer investigate allegations of sexual wrongdoing, rather than having an independent investigator do the work.
“Usually there’s not a difference between the role of the district and what goes on in the investigation,” Long said. “Those decisions regarding who investigates are made on a case-by-case basis. There can be a minor matter where there’s no need to have somebody from outside the district come in and investigate. There can be a major matter where the matter does involve legal counsel or, as is often the case in major matters, you get somebody who is neutral and independent, not affiliated with the law firm who comes in and does the investigation.”
Bollenbach asked Long if she considered the prior cases in which she served as Title IX investigator for the Oologah-Talala district to be “major allegations.”
“I considered all of those instances to be major within the context of facts presented within those cases,” Long said. “To be clear, I also believe that the district took prompt and effective steps that they could be taking when you consider what the laws are that are in place that protect teachers or that protect students.”
She declared it a “complicated environment,” and added that “every one of these matters was reported, initially, to law enforcement.”
“In your report that you gave us, the reporting did not happen until the state board found out five weeks later,” Bollenbach said.
The Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold firm represents many school districts in Oklahoma. Ethics concerns have previously been raised about the firm’s practice of hosting an annual golf tournament for many school administrators and school board members who can influence the awarding of districts’ legal contracts.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister indicated that the Oologah-Talala district may not be the only district that has failed to comply with Title IX requirements.
“Unfortunately, I have concerns that in many districts we have a lack of appreciation for the role, the federal responsibilities, the moral responsibility as well,” Hofmeister said. “And it is one that we are striving to increase the awareness of those that are in positions of local school board members and those who serve in district leadership to have a better understanding.”
State report cards for the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent available, show that 65 percent of economically disadvantaged students at Oologah-Talala High School tested below grade level on all subjects tested by the state—scoring at the “basic” or “below basic” levels, categories that broadly indicate a student is either one or more years behind.
Sixty-nine percent of American Indian students at the high school tested below grade level in all subjects tested, as did 99 percent of Hispanic students at the school, and 54 percent of white students.