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A letter addressed to legislative leadership in Oklahoma names 350 local and national groups calling for an investigation of the state Department of Education. They are also calling for the immediate removal of State Superintendent Ryan Walters. 

This push is a direct response to the near-constant rhetoric that comes from Walters. While this is nothing new to Oklahomans, it has set off an alarm on the national scale. Attention has been focused on the state following the death of 16-year-old Owasso student, Nex Benedict. State laws and policies often target gender and sexual minorities, particularly youth.  

Some of the groups named in the list include state organizations like Freedom Oklahoma and the Diversity Center of Oklahoma. However, there is significant support from national organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

The letter is asking for an investigation to determine “what actions and policies have led to a culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

There are more than 50 bills attacking 2SLGBTQ+ rights currently circulating in the state legislature. Although Walters does not have the power to draft legislation, he can advocate for policies that impede on the lives of queer youth.

Petition for Removal

There is also a separate petition on titled, “Hold Ryan Walters responsible for his role in Nex Benedict’s death.”

As of Thursday, Feb. 29, there are over 3,000 signatures. This petition is seeking the removal of Ryan Walters from office.

“He has spoken against the LGBTQIA+ community at every opportunity,” the petition says. “Now, one of our kids has died due to the extreme, politically motivated speech and [propaganda] spread in speeches, videos produced with Oklahoma taxpayer money, and videos filmed in his car.” 

In typical Walters fashion, he took to his car to record a video to blame “radical left-winged groups and the media” for the backlash he’s received.

“What we know is the media has lied locally and nationally to push a political agenda against conservatives,” Walter stated. “We will continue to do the work that we’re doing in education and we will not allow leftist radicals…to push an agenda that is un-American.” 

Continued Attacks on 2SLGBTQ+ Youth

In 2022, Gov. Stitt signed Senate Bill 615 into law. This bill requires students to use the bathroom that matches their assigned sex at birth. Walters has been a vocal supporter of this policy. He often cites how Stillwater Public Schools allowed students to use the bathroom that reflects their gender identity. 

Walters enacted an emergency rule that requires schools to get approval from the state before allowing gender marker changes on school documents. This ruling posed a risk of outing an unnamed 16-year-old student.

J. Doe is a transgender student seeking to change his gender marker from female to male. Fearing that his fellow students would discriminate against him if they learned he is transgender, Doe’s family is suing the state for damages. 

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Controversial Appointments

Superintendent Walters appointed the social media creator Chaya Raichik to a library advisory committee. Raichik’s problematic history includes self-made claims that she attended the January 6 attack. 

In April 2022, she shared a video to her two million followers of an Owasso teacher that advocated for queer youth. Raichik’s audience targeted Tyler Wrynn, the teacher in question, who later resigned. Sue Benedict, parent of Nex Benedict, told the Independent that Nex “greatly admired” Wrynn. 

Oklahoma Legislators Also Call for Removal

With such a large coalition calling for the removal of Ryan Walters, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first instance.  

Back in December Oklahoma House Democrats renewed their call for an investigation into Superintendent Walters. House Speaker McCall refused the initial plea made in August, 2023. 

Around the same time that House Democrats sent their second call to action, a survey found that several school districts had yet to receive their yearly funding. According to a survey from The Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, 55% of districts had not received final approval for their 2023/2024 school year grants. 75% of participating districts reported that the state rejected and returned their applications for reassessment.

A month later, news broke that the Department of Education was seeking the return of several teacher bonuses. Sign-on bonuses were awarded to new teachers in Oklahoma as an incentive to retain educators. The state has had a history of educators leaving to teach in places with better pay and less restrictions. 

Walters and his department have since refuted the fact that they are at fault for inaccurately awarding funds. They went further to blame the journalists who first broke the story. Walters and the department face a joint lawsuit filed by teachers who were asked to return their bonuses.

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