Oklahoma Teachers on Notice in Tulsa and Mustang

TULSA–Aaron Baker kept a printed copy of State House Bill 1775 within reach in his high school government classroom. Last year.

To avoid any violations, Mr. Baker a teacher in the Putnam City Public School District, practically memorized the eight concepts the law, which  bans from all classroom the  including the teaching that one race or sex is superior to another, that an individual is inherently racist and that people should feel discomfort of their race or sex.

But, a recent Oklahoma Board of Education vote to downgrade Tulsa Public School District accreditation for breaking the spirit of the law–not for teaching one of the eight banned statements–was “a watershed moment,” Mr. Baker said.

The state board on July 28 dropped the Tulsa district and Mustang Public School District to accredited with warning over State HB 1775 violations, an even more serious penalty than what the Oklahoma Department of Education recommended.

After a Tulsa teacher complained of having to take implicit bias training, the state education department determined the course didn’t include statements State HB 1775 explicitly prohibits.

The agency decided Tulsa violated the law because some comments in the training “more likely than not” were inspired by outlawed concepts.

Mustang was punished because students reportedly felt uncomfortable being asked in a Cross the Line activity whether they had experienced discrimination.

Mr. Baker said it’s “very concerning” that teachers not only have to consider the text of the bill but the way someone might interpret its meaning, especially when a student’s discomfort is enough to justify a complaint.

“I have that uncertainty that it’s not fully in my control,” Baker said.  “I can leave a lesson and have full certainty that I did not violate 1775 and find myself in the middle of the next report.”

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law is pending in Oklahoma City federal court.

A group of Oklahoma students, teachers, college professors and activists joined in with the American Civil Liberties Union and other attorneys to file the case in October.

They contend the law violates students’ and teachers’ constitutional rights by chilling conversations on race and gender.

ACLU of Oklahoma executive director Tamya Cox Toure said Tulsa was only the first district to suffer from the bill’s “classroom censorship.”

“The impact of this law is not only being felt by entire school districts, but also by the teachers who have dedicated their lives to the future of Oklahoma and by the students who are denied their right to receive an equitable education,” she said.

“The First Amendment protects the right to expression, including the right to receive information.  We must protect this right to maintain the integrity of Oklahoma’s education system.

Copies of the book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” sit unread at Dewey High School in northeast Oklahoma.  The district bought them for its 11th-grade English class, but then HB 1775 became law.

English teacher Debra Thoreson said it would be a risk to assign the acclaimed book because race is a prominent factor in the nonfiction story.

So, she decided not to teach it last year and doesn’t intend to introduce it this year, either.

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