Oklahoma teacher furloughed after sharing link to banned books
- An Oklahoma teacher has been placed on administrative leave after instructing students on how to access banned books through the Brooklyn Public Library.
- The teacher told Insider that a new Oklahoma law banning critical race theory is forcing teachers to resign.
- The same school district fired a teacher who shared photos of racist and homophobic graffiti with a parent in June.
This story was updated at 6:16 p.m., after the business meeting was held.
An Oklahoma high school English teacher was placed on administrative leave Monday after instructing students on how to access banned books through a New York City library.
The teacher, who asked not to be named due to ongoing disciplinary hearings, told Insider she was put in an ‘impossible’ situation when students returned to class last week to find bookshelves covered and classroom libraries – including his own – dismantled.
The vague wording of a recent state ban on teaching critical race theory in Oklahoma schools has caused fear and confusion among public school teachers who don’t know which books are considered “offensive” and will trigger backlash, the English teacher told Insider.
Normandy schools have told teachers they must have personally read every book in their class or provide “two professional sources” verifying the “relevance” of the books.
To protect themselves and the school district, some teachers in public schools in Normandy have removed their classroom libraries or covered all books with paper, she said. When the students returned to school on Friday, they had questions, she said.
“They see that every shelf is covered and no books are visible and I answered that question that students had and answered it honestly,” she said. The books were banned “because they center perspectives and communities by which many state leaders felt threatened: these are the LGBT+ and BIPOC communities”.
The teacher said she then told students about UnBanned, a Brooklyn Public Library program that provides access to free e-books of banned literature.
On Monday, she was told a meeting was scheduled between her and an assistant district superintendent. She was then alerted that a substitute teacher had been assigned to her class and that she had been placed on administrative leave.
She asked that Monday’s meeting be postponed so she could retain legal representation through the teachers’ union, she said.
Moody first said the teacher had taken time off until the meeting – which was rescheduled for Tuesday afternoon. When asked if the leave was his decision or if he had been told that she was not allowed on school grounds until the meeting – as she claimed – he said that he couldn’t confirm.
“A concerned parent contacted us about a potential issue with Oklahoma HB 1775. We are reviewing the matter and need to speak with the teacher later today,” he said. “They have not been suspended or terminated.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Moody told Insider that the teacher had not been fired but expressed her intention to quit.
“The concern centered on a teacher in public schools in Normandy who, during school hours, made personal and political statements and used his class to make a political demonstration expressing these views,” he said. “Like many educators, the teacher is concerned about censorship and the removal of books by the Oklahoma State Legislature. However, as educators, our goal is to teach students to think critically, not telling them what to think. We addressed the issue and expected the teacher to return to class as usual on Wednesday.”
The second-grade English teacher is entering her second year at Norman Public Schools, a district still embroiled in controversy following disciplinary action taken against another teacher.
Last year, the school board fired Norman High School history teacher Richard Cavett after he shared photos of threatening graffiti with a parent at the school who is a local progressive activist like himself.
The graffiti was a list of black, LGBTQ+ or both college students with a threat and a date, according to Cavett, who has since moved to Connecticut.
He worried that the district was covering up the threat without telling the police or other members of the school community. This parent then shared the images with the media.
Cavett told Insider he shared the graffiti photos after reporting the vandalism to the principal and then hearing from a student that the graffiti was being painted without police assistance.
The school also painted over the graffiti before school resource officers reviewed it, according to the Norman Transcript.
Cavett’s attorney told the school board he feared administrators would not act and feared for the lives of teachers and students.
“I thought, oh, this is another case of Normandy public schools trying to cover things up, so I sent it to the media, and they fired me for breaking privacy laws,” he said. Cavett told Insider on Tuesday. “The superintendent of public schools in Normandy is dangerous.”
Some parents are also disappointed with the impact of HR 1775 on books available in schools.
“People say Norman is liberal heaven but I just don’t know,” Pixie Quigley, who sent photos of the menacing graffiti to the media last year, told Insider. “If teachers have personal books behind their desks, they should turn them over or cover them with paper until they can go through them and determine if they contain anything that people might consider ‘offensive’ or ‘ hurtful “.”
Quigley said she sent the photos because Cavett feared the school would resume vandalism in an attempt to cover it up.
“Which he did,” she said. “We lost a lot of teachers after that last year.”
Never the “good guys”
The English teacher told Insider she was born in Oklahoma and hailed from Oklahoma schools, but the recent law – HR 1775 – is setting the state back.
The law prohibits eight concepts in K-12 classrooms, including that one race or gender is superior to another, that an individual is inherently racist, and that people should feel uncomfortable in because of their race or sex.
Those who feel the law is being broken – either because of the way a subject is taught or the materials or training provided – can file a complaint.
Two school districts have already been reprimanded after the state Board of Education found they violated HR 1775. One of the schools offered implicit bias training to a third party, and the other organized a student exercise on how people have “different experiences in life”, including in the face of discrimination.
The warnings, which stemmed from student complaints, included the lowering of their accreditations to “accredited with warning”.
The English teacher told Insider that administrators have repeatedly told staff that the new law doesn’t mean they have to “pack your books and take them home.”
“But I’ve seen many teachers feel pressured to do just that,” she said. “Teachers have given away their shelves in their classrooms because they have no use for them. They sit empty.”
The teacher said she tweeted a photo of a classroom with the shelves covered in red construction paper, captioned: “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.”
A pride flag hung on the wall behind them.
“Given the serious legal implications for teachers and districts regarding HB 1775, the NPS has placed a renewed emphasis on ensuring that our teachers and staff have reviewed their classroom resources to ensure that all materials are age and content appropriate,” Moody said in a statement earlier today. “We asked teachers to personally read the titles in their classrooms or provide at least two professional sources verifying their relevance. … Our intention has been to inform teachers of the potential professional consequences of HB 1775 and its ensure they are supported and able to confidently maintain their classroom libraries.”
The English teacher said what’s happening in public schools in Normandy extends beyond Oklahoma, as states across the country limit what ideas can be taught in classrooms.
“That’s how it starts. First they come and get the books, then they burn them,” she said. “When we regulate what information people have access to, it quickly becomes a problem. I can’t think of a time in history where the people who banned the books are considered the ‘good guys’.”