The controversial Oklahoma state superintendent of schools suggested, without evidence, that the state teachers union and educators were creating a culture that allowed for rampant sexual misconduct against students.
“What we have seen is radical leftists and the teachers unions turning our schools into Epstein Island,” Ryan Walters said at an emergency Oklahoma State Department of Education meeting last week, referring to where Jeffrey Epstein, the late billionaire and sexual predator, would abuse children.
“They have opened up our schools and allowed sexual predators to target our kids unchecked, unwatched, and without accountability,” he added.
The meeting had been called because of sexual misconduct allegations against a high school teacher in the Western Heights school district in Oklahoma City. Earlier this month, a group known as the Oklahoma Predator Prevention accused the teacher of inappropriately texting with someone he believed to be a minor. According to KFOR 4, the teacher reportedly was not arrested. (The Oklahoma City Police Department told HuffPost it did “not have anything on that individual that would be open record.”) OSDE suspended his teaching license at the meeting.
Walters claimed that there were many concerns about sexual predators in the state’s schools, which he oversees. He said he believes the vast majority of schools do not have issues with sexual predators, but that the state school board was seeking to suspend 17 more licenses across Oklahoma.
When making his claims about predators being prevalent in state schools, Walters singled out several specific districts, including Western Heights, which Walters had previously targeted. In September, OSDE announced an investigation into the district after it was revealed that a school principal was moonlighting as a drag queen and he had prior charges of a child sexual abuse material dismissed. The school district responded by saying that the principal had passed a background check and had his teachers license renewed by Walters himself.
“We’ve had some significant issues with sexual predators in our schools,” he said. “These teachers have targeted children and violated parents’ kids in a way that is unimaginable.”
Walters went on to propose new policies that he said would protect kids from predators. However, the proposals — which have not been circulated to the public or presented to board members yet — are vague, and at this stage don’t provide schools with clear guidance.
Walters said the first rule “clarifies what community standards are in application to a teacher certificate. If a person cannot uphold those community standards…we will act to pull their teaching certificates.” But he did not say what these community standards would be.
He also said he would tie a school district’s accreditation to their ability to hire educators with “good” background checks and holding the district accountable for allowing school officials to go “unchecked.” He did not provide further guidance on how schools should hold staff accountable for teacher misconduct.
The Oklahoma Education Association declined to comment, citing the vagueness and lack of clarity surrounding the proposed rules. Walters did not respond to a request for comment.
Walters has been targeting educators since he became head of Oklahoma schools in January 2023, after serving as Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education from September 2020 to April 2023. (Walters resigned from Stitt’s administration after Oklahoma’s attorney general informed him it was illegal to serve in both roles.)
Walters has referred to members of the teachers union as “terrorists” who “indoctrinate” children. He has also been a big proponent of the false claim that books with LGBTQ+ themes are explicit content and are inappropriate for children, and has repeatedly claimed that there’s pornography in Oklahoma schools — although, when pressed by lawmakers, he was unable to provide any evidence of this.
At an OSDE meeting last June, Walters played a video that alleged that teachers who spoke up for LGBTQ+ rights were secretly defending child sexual abuse. Educators said the video made them fear for their lives, and even pushback from his fellow Republicans hasn’t forced Walters to tone down his rhetoric.
The next state school board meeting is on Thursday, where community members should expect to hear more about the proposals. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is in the midst of a severe teacher shortage, despite the state’s attempt to lure educators with bonuses and increased benefits.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher