OKLAHOMA CITY — A pair of proposed administrative rules targeting library content and disclosure requirements for school staff received a largely chilly reception Friday at listening sessions hosted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
However, State Superintendent Ryan Walters and all but two members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education were not present to hear those comments.
“Is it really a hearing if no one is here to hear the voices of the people who want to weigh in?” Noble Public Schools teacher and parent Erika Wright asked rhetorically after thanking board members Kendra Wesson and Suzanne Reynolds for their attendance. “I get that some of the state board members have day jobs, … but the fact that Superintendent Walters is not sitting in that chair is infuriating to me.
“All of these people have taken time from their spring breaks to be here.”
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After the listening sessions, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education said Walters was instead meeting with families in rural Oklahoma on Friday.
The meetings were video recorded, and the officials will have access to them should they choose to view them.
During the 90-minute morning session, 15 of the 20 speakers objected to a proposed rule change that would penalize the accreditation status of an individual school or a district as a whole if it is found to have library materials deemed to be pornographic or excessively sexualized.
The definition of pornographic in the proposed rules is similar to the state’s legal definition of “obscene materials.”
Additionally, districts would be required to have a written policy for reviewing any library materials and responding to complaints regarding books or other items in their collections. Most school districts, including Tulsa, Union, Bixby and Owasso, already have policies in place for addressing challenged school materials.
As drafted, districts and CareerTech sites could also be penalized if they fail to annually provide a complete listing of all library materials available districtwide to the Oklahoma State Department of Education
“These rules are a solution in search of a problem,” Tulsa TRAICE Academy librarian Michelle McCain said. “I can assure you that students aren’t coming to a school library looking for pornography. There are much easier ways for them to access it, including on their own personal cellphones.”
The afternoon session drew an overflow crowd to weigh in on a proposed rule that, according to a February press release from Walters’ office, is meant to reinforce a 2014 measure known as the Oklahoma Parents’ Bill of Rights.
Among the rule’s proposed provisions, school district employees would be required to disclose any changes or information regarding a child’s health, social or psychological development to parents or guardians within 30 days. The language of the proposed rule specifically includes gender identity information, including the student’s preferred names or pronouns while at school.
The proposal also would require schools to allow parents to inspect sexual education classroom materials and to have schools honor their written objections “in whole or in part” to sex ed “or any other instruction questioning beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion” without excluding students from the parts of instruction not objected to by the parent.
Of the eight commenters who voiced support for the rule Friday afternoon, several made it clear that they want to be kept informed about all changes in their students’ lives, regardless of whether they agree with them.
“Parents’ rights do not stop at the school door,” Edmond resident Tracey Montgomery said. “Parents have a legal and moral obligation to decide what’s best for their children in all areas of their life.”
Conversely, many of the two dozen commenters who voiced opposition to the proposed rule change noted that their concerns were not because they necessarily wanted all students to hide information from their parents.
Instead, their objections were focused on students who would be at risk for bullying, homelessness or abuse if their gender identity or sexuality — or assumptions about them — were revealed without their consent.
“Everything you’ve heard so far is true that this will decimate student safety,” Sergio Ruben Martinez said. “It is unbelievable to me that this body is spending time and resources to actively hurt children. I have never seen anything in my entire life move with such blatant disregard for the lives of students.
“Now that you know, it’s impossible for me to think about how you could turn away and ignore this.”
Both proposed rules contain a provision that willful noncompliance is grounds for the State Board of Education to penalize a school district’s accreditation. However, neither rule provides a definition for “willful” or how that determination will be reached.
Administrative rules are written by state agencies to help them carry out existing laws.
Both proposed rules are subject to approval by both the State Board of Education and the Oklahoma Legislature before enactment.
The session fell over spring break, and several high school students and recent graduates made a point to attend Friday. Among them was the last speaker of the day, Midwest City Carl Albert High School senior Savannah Wallace, who urged the board members in attendance to keep one specific population in mind when weighing both proposed rules.
“Keep in mind who you are affecting with these decisions, because no one has asked us what we think,” she said. “Please keep us in mind. Don’t forget about us when you have these big topics at hand.”