Ray Carter | March 2, 2022
Student civil-rights protection advances
Legislation to address civil-rights concerns in Oklahoma schools by allowing the state attorney general to investigate complaints has won easy approval in a state House committee.
Currently, most civil-rights complaints related to public schools are directed to the U.S. Department of Education. By adding the office of the Oklahoma attorney general to the list of those who can investigate complaints, state Rep. Sherrie Conley said lawmakers can better ensure students’ rights are protected.
“This is about ensuring that our children, that their civil rights are not being violated,” said Conley, a Newcastle Republican who is a former teacher and administrator.
House Bill 4015, by Conley, would allow Oklahomans to file a complaint of an education civil rights violation or discrimination with the Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement “by anyone who believes that a public school or institution of higher education in this state has discriminated against someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, genetic information, or disability.”
Under the legislation, the office of the attorney general could also “initiate periodic compliance reviews to assess the practices of public schools or institutions of higher education to determine whether they comply with the laws and regulations enforced by the Office.”
Conley said the legislation allows the attorney general’s office to investigate in instances where no formal complaint has been filed but allegations have been aired elsewhere, such as in media reports.
She noted the attorney general can already conduct investigations regarding housing and employment discrimination complaints, even though such complaints can also be filed with federal entities, and said HB 4015 provides a similar state-level alternative for such investigations regarding civil-rights violations in education.
Conley noted federal officials receive about 10,000 civil-rights complaints each year and said the lower volume of Oklahoma-specific complaints might be addressed more quickly by state officials.
State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, objected to the legislation, saying federal investigations or review by local district attorneys should suffice.
Waldron said the bill was “opening up the pathway for more fishing expeditions by a politically minded AG’s office” and could cause the attorney general to “respond to rumors.”
“I think this is going to make teachers feel like they are under attack,” Waldron said. “I think they’re going to feel that this is a McCarthy-like assault on teachers, an invitation for anyone who wants to to bring potshots at schools in an already highly charged political atmosphere.”
“Currently, the federal government has this power,” Conley responded. “Do you believe that they feel attacked by the federal government because this exists at the federal level? I don’t see how this is any different.”
Waldron also suggested thousands of teachers have left Oklahoma schools because of last year’s passage of House Bill 1775, which made it illegal to teach Oklahoma students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
“After the passage of House Bill 1775, 3,800 teachers retired in the summer,” Waldron said. “Many of them cited a climate of hostility as the reason they left at year 28, 29, rather than 32, 33.”
“This is not about teachers,” Conley said. “This is about kids and protecting their civil rights.”
HB 4015 passed the House States Rights Committee on a 4-1 vote with Waldron in opposition.
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.