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Under Ryan Walters, Oklahoma lost federal funding to help schools respond to tragedies

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters is seen through a television camera while conducting an interview in June 2023.
Dylan Goforth
The Frontier
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters is seen through a television camera while conducting an interview in June 2023.

A crisis team that helps schools around Oklahoma address emergencies like student deaths and natural disasters lost federal funding under State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Oklahoma State Department of Education a four-year grant for $996,855 in 2019 to create a crisis team that could respond to any district facing an emergency and offer training.

In the spring of 2023, the Department of Justice opened another funding opportunity through the same program. The federal agency confirmed the State Department of Education didn’t apply by the deadline in May of that year.

Dan Isett, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, said in an email that the agency is in the process of applying for similar Department of Justice grant opportunities this year.

He said positions with the team are paid for through state funds and other federal grants that allow the team to continue functioning. Isett declined to answer follow-up questions about what other federal grants were funding the team.

The crisis response team is made up mostly of State Department of Education employees who volunteer to help and receive no additional salary, said Michelle Strain, who led the team from 2021 to 2023. She said she resigned because her beliefs didn’t align with Walters’ vision for the agency.

The Department of Justice grant paid for one full-time team leader and travel across the state. The grant also covered the cost of materials for local school districts to go through a three-day crisis training, Strain said.

A State Department of Education newsletter from October 2023 said the state agency was losing a grant to cover the cost of training and school districts would have to pay for the curriculum themselves.

The state agency’s handling of federal grants came under scrutiny in 2023 after Walters said the agency wouldn’t pursue grant opportunities that didn’t align with “Oklahoma values.” Walters didn’t define what those values were.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who leads the education appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives, pushed for a requirement in the education budget passed last year for Walters to seek approval from the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore before deciding not to reapply for any federal grants. McBride expressed concerns at the time thatthe State Department of Education was failing to submit grant applications. The law went into effect in July 2023, a month after the Department of Education missed the deadline for the Department of Justice grant.

The state crisis team is supposed to offer support to schools after student suicides and other tragedies. School officials in Owasso got help from the team after the death of nonbinary high school student Nex Benedict.

The state medical examiner’s office found that Benedict died by suicide in February after a fight with classmates in a school bathroom, though they also sustained injuries to their head, neck and torso. The incident placed national scrutiny on Oklahoma’s treatment of transgender and nonbinary students, and the federal Department of Education launched an investigation that is still ongoing into how the Owasso district handled sex-based harassment. An Owasso spokesman said the district continues to cooperate with the federal investigation.

A spokesman for the district also said Owasso Public Schools communicated with the State Department of Education crisis response team after Benedict’s death. The team visited Owasso High School to provide support for staff and administrators.

Mustang Superintendent Charles Bradley said the district also has received support from the State Department of Education crisis response team multiple times in the past few months.

Mustang student Jot Turner died by suicide on the same day in January that another student in the district attempted suicide in a school bathroom. In April, two Mustang students and one recent graduate died at the hands of their father in a murder-suicide.

The district has an internal team of counselors and social workers that responded to the campus tragedies, as well as local therapists and pastors who provided extra support. District staff contacted the state crisis response team after both tragedies to confirm that they were responding appropriately and team leaders provided extra suggestions for resources, Bradley said. The state team also visited Mustang a week after Turner’s death to help staff discuss and process the loss.

“If this year were to have happened next year, and those resources as they exist this year at the State Department would not have been available to me, I don’t know what we would have done,” Bradley said. “We would have done our best, but it would not have been the best that could have been because of what they provide now.”

Terri Grissom, former grant writer for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Brianna Bailey
The Frontier
Terri Grissom, former grant writer for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Terri Grissom worked as a grant writer for the State Department of Education from 2017 until she resigned in April 2023. During that time, she secured federal funding for the crisis response team and a bullying prevention coordinator that helped districts respond to bullying more effectively.

Grissom said she spent three months after Walters took office in January 2023 working on an application to secure another round of funding for the crisis response team, but was unable to submit it because the state agency’s attorneys didn’t register correctly to receive an identification number needed to apply for federal grants. She resigned out of frustration, she said.

Pamela Smith-Gordon was hired as the department’s grant manager after Grissom left. She said she waited months for access to any federal grant platforms and was finally able to sign into the Department of Justice website shortly before she resigned in October 2023. Smith-Gordon quit because she was unable to perform her job duties, she said.

She said she never had access to any other grant websites, which left her unable to apply for new grants or submit required progress reports for existing ones. She estimates the State Department of Education missed out on about $2 million in federal money during her four months with the agency.

It’s unclear what the state agency’s work to secure or reapply for grants has looked like in recent months. In April, The Frontier requested copies of all applications that the State Department of Education has submitted for competitive federal grants since Walters took office, but didn’t receive any response or documents back before publication.

Walters urged public school superintendents in April to ignore a federal rule change that broadened anti-discrimination guidelines for schools to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office and the State Department of Education have both filed federal lawsuits challenging the rule change.

Failing to comply with program regulations could jeopardize all federal education funding that Oklahoma receives. But it would probably take years for the federal government to pull that money, said Cathryn Oakley, director of legal policy for the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. The group has been critical of Walters’ anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“Ryan Walters is just refusing to comply. His framing of all of this is that he is standing up for something somehow, but instead, all he’s doing is costing Oklahoma schools at every turn,” Oakley said. “He’s hurting the students. He’s hurting the teachers. He’s going to put the state at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds.”

A spokesman for the State Department of Education said the state received about $508 million in federal funding for the 2023-2024 school year.

This article first appeared on The Frontier and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Ari Fife is a The Frontier staff writer focusing on race and equity issues in Oklahoma.

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