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Tensions flared ahead of monthly Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting

Oklahomans advocating for LBGTQ+ rights and safer public schools march from the state Capitol to the State Department of Education meeting on Thursday.
Janelle Stecklein
Oklahoma Voice
Oklahomans advocating for LBGTQ+ rights and safer public schools march from the state Capitol to the State Department of Education meeting on Thursday.

For months, the tense atmosphere at the monthly State Board of Education meeting has been as big a part of the experience as policies themselves as Oklahomans who remained deeply divided over the state superintendent’s rhetoric have shown up to speak out.

But this month, tensions flared long before Thursday’s meeting ever started.

Accusations of stolen chairs, bullying and disparate treatment flew. Protesters marched from the state Capitol to the state Department of Education building and men touting megaphones shouted bigoted statements at the LGBTQ+ supporters gathered outside the State Department of Education building hours before the meeting began.

As one person waved a sign reading “Remove Ryan Walters from Office Now,” a man bellowed that some of those LGBTQ+ rights protesters were the reason Oklahoma needs someone like Walters to “clean up the education system.”

A protester and counter-protester went nose-to-nose at one point, and one person briefly tried to block others from crossing through a gate on Capitol grounds.

Some blamed the tensions on the high profile death in February of Owasso non-binary high school student Nex Benedict. Benedict died by suicide a day after a fight in a high school bathroom and after reportedly being bullied.

Others said it was the result of an ongoing fight over the soul and future of Oklahoma’s public schools over the inclusion of social-emotional learning, critical race theory, and diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Walters has accused educators of indoctrinating students. He’s opposed allowing students to use the bathrooms that match their gender, changing gender markers in school records and other policies considered trans-affirming. He and the Board of Education adopted a rule requiring schools to notify parents if a child uses different pronouns or a different gender identity at school.

Some have blamed messaging from state officials for Benedict’s bullying and death.

Ahead of the meeting, about two dozen LGBTQ+ supporters marched from the state Capitol, chanting “Justice for Nex!” and “Trans Lives Matter!”

They were followed by a handful of men making fun of their looks and sexual orientation and suggesting that they should be castrated.

“(Walters) is teaching hate,” said Larry Little, of Oklahoma City, ahead of the march. “He’s teaching ignorance. Teaching white supremacy, which is really not good for Oklahoma.”

Little said Walters isn’t listening to the message that opponents are trying to convey, but Little believes lawmakers are.

Ashley Hall, of Edmond, said she has a grandchild in second grade. When he was in first, he was asked to tell the class his preferred pronouns.

“He didn’t know what a pronoun was,” Hall said. “That’s garbage. He should be taught things like reading, math, science, history. We don’t need to know sex and gender and all this garbage that they’re pushing.”

She believes the majority of Oklahomans continue to stand behind Walters, and it’s a loud vocal minority that is pushing back against him.

“He said he was going to do this when he was running for office,” Hall said. “This isn’t anything new. It’s just the other side trying to drown us out.”

But Sean Cummings, of The Village, said in the past month, Walters’ hateful rhetoric “really blew up,” and Benedict’s death has had a huge impact on the superintendent’s popularity.

He lined up around 4 p.m. Wednesday to attend the state Board of Education meeting scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Thursday because he wanted to be guaranteed a chance to address Walters.

Preparing for a long night as temperatures dipped close to freezing and just hours after it snowed, Cummings said he set up his belongings in an unlocked entryway that Walters’ supporters have been allowed to use for months, only to watch two state employees remove his chairs and a sign he brought with him.

“The fact that this has devolved to this, tells me we’re winning,” Cummings said.

Someone then wrapped zip ties and a long orange extension cord across the doorway to keep people out.

“This is so juvenile, I mean it’s juvenile,” Cummings said. “I would expect this out of my boys when they were about 12. Locking it with extension cords for one and taking my stuff because I’m willing to sleep out here all night.”

Someone also posted signs on the agency window, warning the dozen or so people lined up overnight ahead of the public meeting that the State Capitol Park is closed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. That stoked fears that state troopers who patrol the Capitol grounds could show up and arrest meeting attendees. But when 11 p.m. arrived, no troopers ever showed.

A Walters spokesperson referred comment on the chairs, sign, extension cords, paperwork, fears of arrest, and hateful rhetoric accusations to the Department of Public Safety, which oversees state troopers.

DPS spokesperson Sarah Stewart said a DPS security officer put ties on the door Wednesday to secure the building because the outer doors do not lock, but there were “security issues last night and we needed to secure the building.” She said she’s not aware of troopers ever allowing anyone to camp out overnight in the entryway.

The State Capitol Park closes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night, and unauthorized people are subject to removal by security personnel, she said.

“It is not our intent to arrest anyone, but it is our job to provide security for those buildings,” Stewart said.

She said she couldn’t address the chairs and sign as she doesn’t speak for the State Department of Education.

Mike Howe, of Broken Arrow, said when he stepped out of the entryway at the State Department of Education, state employees removed his chairs too.

Howe, who celebrated his birthday while standing in line for the meeting, said he was ready to be arrested because he wasn’t going to voluntarily relinquish his place in line. He arrived at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

“The stark reality is they don’t really want us coming into the meeting, speaking because we never have anything really nice to say to Mr. Walters,” Howe said. “We’re just basically here trying to get him to be accountable for what he says and has been doing.”

Howe said two months ago, Walters’ supporters came in the middle of the night and took over the entire section out front.

“We’ve been kind of battling for months just basically for the speaking parts,” Howe said.

Connie Thayer, of Edmond, said Oklahoma ranks in the bottom 10 in education outcomes and ranks toward the bottom in student performance in math, English and reading. Walters is trying to change that trajectory.

She said the children “being indoctrinated right now” are the ones that will determine Oklahoma’s future.

“That’s why it is so important that we are here doing what we’re doing,” Thayer said.

But Candice Hoyt, of Purcell, said Walters’ hateful rhetoric is “killing our kids, causing harassment, causing bullying.

“These kids in schools are seeing the adults being bullies in harassing kids, so their kids are going to go to school and start bullying and harassing other kids that don’t fit their criteria,” Hoyt said.

Wearing a “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt, Hoyt was among those who marched for LGBTQ+ rights. As she spoke, men hurled vile insults in the background.

She said LGBTQ+ Oklahomans don’t deserve to be harassed.

“They deserve to live a normal life just like everybody else, but we get hatred spewed at us, and we’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “We’re just standing here. We have love in our hearts for all kids to have a safe environment to get a public education.”


Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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Oklahoma Voice