Profanity Warning: The following story contains vulgar language referenced in a direct quote.
OKMULGEE, Okla. – An Okmulgee Public School District paraprofessional employee was accused of spanking a special needs student at the primary school on the first day of school on Aug. 16. The employee, Jesse Johnson was accused by the student who disclosed the incident to his parents when he arrived home at the end of the day. Due to the fact that the student is a minor, their name will not be disclosed in this article. The student is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The student’s mother, Sally VanStraten (Mvskoke) claimed her son had been spanked when he arrived home on the first day of school, visibly upset.
“The first thing he (VanStraten’s son) told me was ‘spank’,” VanStraten said. “I asked what happened, he said ‘Jesse called me ‘fuck you’ and ‘bitch’.” VanStraten’s son then proceeded to show his mother where he had been spanked, and reported that it made him cry.
Until that point, VanStraten was unaware Johnson was involved with the special needs classroom. From there, she called the school to lodge a complaint. VanStraten’s daughter emailed the district’s superintendent, Renee Dove over the incident. Dove responded that the matter was under investigation.
VanStraten and her husband provided statements for the investigation, and took down their son’s account of what happened. According to VanStraten, she was told by school officials that the investigation found no wrongdoing on behalf of Johnson’s part.
In the meantime, VanStraten had refused to let her son return to school out of fear that Johnson would spank him again. In September she discovered that her son had been dropped out of the school district due to his extended absence.
When asked by VanStraten if Johnson was qualified to work with special needs students at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year, she was merely told incessantly by the school that, “we only follow protocol”. She was not given a direct “yes”, or “no” answer.
According to Oklahoma state law regarding corporal punishment on special needs students,
“As applied to students with disabilities entitled to special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the use of corporal punishment by employees or agents of an Oklahoma public school is prohibited beginning in the 2020-2021 school year.”
The Okmulgee Primary School handbook does not explicitly list corporal punishment as a discipline method authorized for staff to perform on students.
VanStraten’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three years old. At the time of his diagnosis he was nonverbal. When a child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, their abilities and behaviors are ranked on a scale of three levels of severity. VanStraten’s son’s diagnosis was classified as a severity level two, which is defined as “requiring substantial support”.
In addition to autism, VanStraten’s son was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This makes it challenging for him to sit still and focus in a classroom setting. His diagnoses require the assistance of a certified paraprofessional.
VanStraten’s son attends therapy at the Autism Comprehensive Educational Services (ACES) location in Bixby to help overcome learning challenges. Initially VanStraten and her son made the trip from Okmulgee to Bixby five times a week. Over time, VanStraten’s son would learn how to speak in spite of his disability. Although he can not speak at the same level as other students, he can still talk and communicate with others.
In light of these diagnoses, VanStraten claimed that OPS did not properly accommodate her son.
VanStraten is an OPS alumnus. According to her, she did not want her son to attend her alma mater. When the time came to discuss education options, ACES officials recommended Morris Public Schools over OPS. When VanStraten applied to have her son transferred to MPS, their application was denied. The family’s only option for their special needs student was OPS.
VanStraten’s son experienced challenges in the classroom. According to VanStraten, during the 2022-2023 school year her son was kicked out for kicking and hitting a teacher. She also claimed that in lieu of teaching proper special needs curriculum, paraprofessionals allowed her son to sleep throughout the school day.
“They were overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid and they needed help,” VanStraten said.
VanStraten added that her son was required to attend summer school in order to catch up on the curriculum he missed because paraprofessionals allowed him to sleep during the past school year.
Lapse of State IEP standards
At the time VanStraten’s son started school at OPS, the special needs department was under the direction of former OPS Special Needs Director and School Psychologist, Dr. Dalawna Brent. A native of Okmulgee, Dr. Brent spent years in graduate school learning about early education.
Dr. Brent holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in educational psychology. She dedicated her educational career to education. Dr. Brent’s resume would easily fit the needs of any district’s special needs department, especially an underserved one like OPS.
Dr. Brent served over the special needs department at OPS for nearly three years. Coming into the position, she saw a lot of room for improvement within the department. However, this did not initially deter her from enacting change.
“There had been some inadequate leadership in the department that led to a lot of the troubles and deficiencies the department was experiencing,” Dr. Brent said.
Unfortunately within six months or so, Dr. Brent would learn the issue was systemic. According to Dr. Brent, individualized education program (IEP) standards were not being met, thus the program’s problems continued to persist.
“She’s the only reason why we agreed to send our children here,” VanStraten said. “She actually cares and knows special education.”
Dr. Brent resigned from the district in May. She described her resignation as “inevitable”. In spite of the fact she had spent three years at the district, she was unable to fix the issues she believed needed to be fixed. Dr. Brent made the decision to leave in order to preserve her reputation as a professional educator.
“At that point it put my professional liability and professional responsibility at risk,” Dr. Brent said.
Special education is highly regulated at the state and federal level. Dr. Brent did not believe those standards were being met at OPS. When asked about how the district needs to improve, Dr. Brent did not mince words on how she described their approach to special needs education.
“The special education department appears to be the dumping ground,” Dr. Brent said. “It seems to be where we send those students, the staff members, the equipment that is defective. We don’t want to deal with it, but we can’t get rid of it.”
Mvskoke Media reached out to the Okmulgee Public School District on the allegations of corporal punishment. The district provided the following statement,
“Early in the current school year, there was an allegation made that a district employee administered corporal punishment to a student. The allegation was thoroughly investigated, and no evidence was found to support this claim. School district staff members have not administered corporal punishment to any district student in approximately 10 years or more.”
The district’s statement would further go on to claim they currently have qualified special needs education staff members.
Although VanStraten’s son had been dropped from the district in September, it did not stop her from attending the monthly school board meeting n Oct. 10. VanStraten confronted Dove and other school officials about who investigated the incident involving her son. This resulted in VanStraten being removed from the board meeting.
VanStraten remarked that she has been in contact with fellow special needs student parents at OPS. According to her, many have had similar experiences with a lackluster special needs education curriculum at OPS, prompting them to remove those students from the district. At this time, VanStraten is not pursuing legal action against OPS. It is her belief that legal action will not solve the problem for other families of special needs students within the district.
It is the hope of the parents of OPS special needs students that the topic of an improved IEP curriculum will be added to the Nov. 14 OPS board meeting agenda.
“These kids deserve an education just like the other kids do,” VanStraten said. “I will stand up and fight for every single one of them.”
VanStraten and other special needs parents are organizing a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding special needs education at OPS. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 30 at the Okmulgee Public Library. The library is located at 218 S Okmulgee Ave.