OKLAHOMA CITY — It was a tough Monday morning for Oklahoma Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Dist. 51) as he tried to sell SB 301 to skeptical GOP and Democratic House members in the Education Committee*.
The bill is intended to establish a dedicated investigator of the state Board of Education to make sure that teachers suspected of being “sexual predators” can’t move from one school district to another when legal prosecutions fall apart.
But the committee wasn’t buying it — not even the Republicans.
Senate Bill 301 surrounded with controversy
SB 301 was intended to establish a new position for a CLEET** certified investigator who would be hired and controlled by the board itself and not the State Department of Education (SDE) or the recently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister.
But there are big differences. The members of the Oklahoma Board of Education (OBOE) are all appointed by the governor with Senate approval. The superintendent is elected by a popular state-wide vote.
Current board members were all appointed by Governor Mary Fallin during the last administration headed by the controversial and unpopular Janet Barresi, a dentist by trade.
It was widely believed at the time that Gov. Mary Fallin appointed those board members as loyalists to Barresi and to the harsh “reform” regime that she instituted in the state.
SB 301 likely would have sailed through the House in the same way that it did in the Senate where it passed, 32-14, had it not been for the disruptive protests of OBOE members Bill Price and Amy Ford at the end of the last meeting insisting that they discuss supporting the bill, which she had promoted heavily when it was heard in a Senate committee.
Critics took note of the passions expressed, and charged that the bill was actually intended to give the OBOE, who was hostile to Hofmeister, a staff member who would engage in free ranging investigations both within and outside of the SDE.
Biggs’ testimony meets immediate opposition
The bill was authored by Senator Kyle Loveless. But, according to Biggs, it was resourced by him due to his history of being a district attorney before being elected to the House.
His former heavy experience in the courtroom and working with law enforcement showed in his argument.
In equal measure, his lack of education background and understanding of the deeper educational ramifications of his proposal were obvious.
Responding to complaints that had been raised in many quarters, Biggs explained that there was a new amendment that would not create a new position, but use one Regional Accreditation Officer (RAO) for the role that his bill had in mind.
Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Dist. 44) raised issues about the amendment itself from an organizational point of view asking how one person could have two jobs, one where they answer to Hofmeister, and the other where they answer to the OBOE without Hofmeister’s involvement.
Biggs did not answer the question.
Instead, he launched into a series of statements that continued to center around “34 instances of teachers who have been convicted of these kinds of crimes.”
He argued that this bill would not let schools continue to “keep their heads in the sand” and ignore or play off instances of sexual predation by a teacher. He gave an example of Western Heights Public Schools hearing from a parent who accused a teacher of having sex with her daughter.
Biggs said that the district had “suspended and then fired” the teacher for “violation of social media, but did nothing to address the fact that he had been accused of a sexual violation.”
“By firing him for a social media violation,” Biggs argued, “that would allow him to go to another school district to teach, but for David Prater in the DA’s office filing charges that would bring all of this to light.”
However, in response to some questions about whether this would be too much to add to any RAO’s portfolio, he said, “Schools aren’t doing this on a daily basis. So to say that it would be too much work for one of these investigators, I don’t believe that with 34 cases it would happen every single day. but when it does happen we would have someone there who would address the issue quickly and promptly.”
Biggs also repeated throughout his presentation that he needed to bring the issue of teachers moving to other public schools “because the State Department of Education isn’t doing anything about it.” He said that he wanted to call attention to the matter by helping to write and promote the bill.
“This is an issue that they need to be addressing and they have chosen not to,” Biggs said.
Doubts persist from both parties
The doubts about the administrative work-ability of the idea continued to persist from other members of the committee, some of them from Republican members.
Rep. Ann Coody (R-Dist. 64) raised the same issue that Virgin had raised earlier wondering how an RAO could carry out their usual duties and have these special investigations added onto them.
Biggs raised examples of other CLEET certified investigators with other state agencies who investigate regularly. He then argued that the SDE has investigators, but they simply aren’t doing any investigations of this type.
Coody persisted with her concern that even though the amendment would have someone already on staff, they would answer only to the board and not the superintendent.
Rep. Katie Henke (R-Dist. 71), Vice-Chair of the committee, also raised questions about the training that Biggs’ proposed investigator would have. He responded that basic CLEET certification training teaches investigative interviewing techniques.
Henke pressed him, however, on the unique circumstances of interviewing a child who might have been sexually abused. She said, “If you don’t have an experienced forensic interviewer you could potentially derail any type of investigation.”
Biggs response was to agree with Henke, but then he argued that it would be ideal to have a forensic interviewer, “but there has to be that first person to have that conversation.” He went on to argue, “When you take a basic CLEET class you learn the key words that would show that we need some additional help.”
Then, he quickly moved back to his theme that “currently, nobody is doing anything on this right now.”
When Henke pressed Biggs if he had checked with any of the agencies that deal with child abuse cases he answered that he had not.
Biggs portrayed those who are against the bill as having objections, but not having any other solution to what he contended was a problem.
Rep. Ed Cannaday (D-Dist. 15) pressed Biggs further about the RAO that would do the extra job. He asked if those were volunteer duties for which they would not be paid. Biggs answered no, at which time Cannaday asked why there was not any fiscal impact shown on the bill. If the extra duties would result in extra pay, there should be a fiscal impact shown.
Cannaday also raised the issue as to whether or not that individual would have to pay out-of-pocket for their own CLEET certification.
Biggs raises Roman Catholic Priest scandal as example
Biggs also associated what has been going on the in schools with the scandals involving Roman Catholic priests in recent years.
“If you want to draw comparisons, look at the Catholic scandal that happened,” Biggs said. “They hid their heads in the sand and shuffled the priests to other places. That’s exactly what is happening here in Oklahoma in these schools.”
Legal restrictions acknowledged
Rep. Todd Thomsen (R-Dist. 25) challenged Biggs’ repeated criticism of Western Heights by raising the issue of legal liability if they fire someone just on hearsay. He pointed out that the school might have fired the teacher for what they did have so that they could remove him quickly rather than waiting for the longer, and uncertain process of finding him guilty of a sex crime.
Biggs agreed that they did take immediate action to fire him. He then repeated his objections to the teacher being able “to go on down the road”.
Biggs also argued again that Hofmeister claims her investigators have the ability to do the investigations.
But when Virgin pressed Biggs harder on the qualifications that the proposed investigator would have “in these very sensitive situations”, Biggs tried to qualify himself as knowing about charging teachers with sexual crimes.
While saying that he was not an expert in everything that they have to deal with in the Legislature, he qualified himself to know about the need for this investigator.
Biggs the prosecutor
“I’m familiar with prosecution. I’m familiar with teachers. I’ve charged teachers with having sex with their students,” said Biggs.
He went on, “That’s why Senator Loveless came to me, because I have knowledge of the prosecution of these types of cases. I’ve been there when teachers turned in their licenses in exchange for a plea deal.”
Most of the early questions and answers between Biggs and committee members happened in the discussion period on the amendment to combine the investigator responsibilities of the bill into one of the existing RAO positions currently in the SDE.
Coody asked Biggs if he was aware that a bill had been going through the Legislature by Sen. Lee Denney (SB 711) that would set up a process of reporting possible sexual crimes to the SDE. Biggs answered that he was not aware of it.
Biggs became visibly agitated as Cannady pressed him on the fact that the 34 teachers that he continued to mention had actually been found out, and successfully prosecuted for their crimes without any such special investigator from the SDE.
Biggs agreed that those 34 cases had been successfully prosecuted, but “there are more out there.” But, he did not offer any evidence to back up his claim.
Questions about accusatory tone of argument
Virgin then challenged Biggs directly about the tone and nature of his testimony before the committee:
Representative Biggs, I resent the fact that you are acting like this is the only way to address this situation. None of us here are wanting to support people who are preying upon children. But I have serious issues with the way that you are going about addressing this issue.
With his face growing noticeably dark red, Biggs attempted an answer, and then said, “I resent the fact that you don’t want to take steps to protect kids.”
After a serious discussion, the bill dies
Henke raised the issue about how confidentiality would be maintained and whether this process would result in teachers being considered “guilty until proven innocent.”
Thomsen had concerns about who would be making the requests.
Rep. Jadine Nollan (R-Dist. 66) raised concerns that the issues that Biggs was pointing out had existed during the entire last administration, and that the new superintendent had only been in place for several months not having time yet to deal with the issues the bill was intended to resolve.
What happens next?
After the meeting was adjourned we asked Rep. Virgin if Biggs’ comments making implications about the motivations of opponents was usual in the House.
She answered, “No. Not at all. It really has been something that has been specific to this piece of legislation. Both the House and the Senate authors are acting like this is the only way to address the problem.”
She pointed out that what several of them were hearing from school board attorneys was that they wanted Denny’s SB 711 to pass as a way to deal with that situation.
When asked if she thought the bill could come back to life in some way, she explained that one way would be for the committee chairman to give it another hearing.
She also said that another way for it to stay alive would be for a discharge petition to force the bill passed the committee and directly to the floor, but that would take a vote of 68 members, which she believes is a high threshold to cross.
*This is the Education sub-committee of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
**CLEET certification is the basic law enforcement training required of law enforcement officers in Oklahoma. Officers receive basic training on laws, arrest procedures, court procedures, and the safe handling of firearms. It is used by a variety of law enforcement agencies that don’t have their own academies.