OK Legal help for parents on school issues

The State of Virginia set a national prairie fire on the relationship between schools, school boards and parents of children attending public schools. Virginia Governor Younkin premised his successful campaign on putting parents in the driver’s seat when it came to education.

Oklahoma’s education regulations are complex and designed to make it hard for parents to be involved with a meaningful voice in the administration of their children’s schools.

That’s about to change.

The school districts have lawyers in-house and on retainer, but for parents, legal assistance is costly. Parents can feel overwhelmed when school administrators cite rules and regulations to parents’ questions about the public school and their child.

Tulsan Maria Mercedes Seidler has founded a 501C3 nonprofit law firm, Legal Overwatch for Parents’ Student Rights, to assist parents with legal issues that they have with public schools. That this nonprofit is a law firm distinguishes it from other parent’s right organizations, which numbers are increasing.

In her first lawsuit, Legal Overwatch took on the defense of parents’ religious rights when the Stillwater School Board interrupted and shut down a parent’s religious opposition against the District’s continuation of Obama’s Department of Education transexual bathroom policy.  When a boy entered the girl’s bathroom in which a female teacher was present, the issue heated up and so did concerns in the Stillwater community.  Parents lined up to speak at upcoming school meetings, including Brice Chaffin.  Mr. Chaffin based his opposition to the bathroom policy on Biblical passages.  Less than a minute into his address to the Board, he was interrupted and told he was not on topic.  He was again interrupted before the two-minute mark, at which time the school board shut off his mic and had him escorted from the meeting by law enforcement.

Legal Overwatch filed a case in the Payne County Court, alleging that the actions of the Stillwater School Board violated Mr. Chaffin’s rights under both Article 1 Section 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution (“Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship.”) and the Oklahoma Freedom of Religion Act.  She also sued on behalf of Reclaim Oklahoma Parents’ Empowerment, as representative of conservative Christian parents whose parental rights, by extension, were violated as the Board’s treatment of Mr. Chaffin serves as a chilling warning.   The School District moved to have the lawsuit dismissed, but after reading briefs and hearing oral argument, the judge found in favor of Legal Overwatch and its clients, allowing the suit to move forward.

Maria says her phone and e-mail have not stopped ringing since. She recently appeared on Tulsa TV News 8 KTUL to discuss her new organization and its mission. This writer interviewed her to discuss the issues she is hearing about from parents related to their children in Oklahoma public schools.

Arnett: How much are they paying you to do this?

Maria:   Nothing.  The legal work I do on behalf of parents’ rights is on a pro bono basis.  In our first lawsuit, we are fortunate that the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act provides that if a victim prevails, the government has to pay attorney fees. So, in the Stillwater case, we have asked the  Court to award our attorney fees if we win, but it is the intent of Legal Overwatch to roll that money back into the firm to fund future lawsuits. My services are free, but there are court costs and other fees in order to just file a lawsuit.  I am a retired attorney who got involved in her grandchildren’s education and the battles their parents had to fight to get their education needs met. The final straw was the obscene books in school libraries–and just bad literary choices of public school librarians, and I had to do something.  So, I started Legal Overwatch to serve conservative parents who deserve for their children to read at least at grade proficiency.

Arnett: So, what kinds of issues are parents calling you about?

Maria: I’ve been surprised at how quickly word has spread that there is someone who is willing to stand up for parents on legal issues relating to schools and school boards. Some of the cases are quite disturbing.

The affected parents from the sexual abuse scandal at Shawnee School District are still fighting to experience some sense of justice. It was made more galling as they had to see the Superintendent who helped to protect continued employment of the predatory coach campaigning for State Superintendent.  In response to their distress, Legal Overwatch filed a complaint and requested that the Shawnee School District’s accreditation be downgraded. The State Board of Education just recently downgraded school districts for violation of HB 1775, the anti-CRT bill.  Oklahoma has a mandatory reporting law when a school employee reasonably believes a child is being abused.  During the coach’s employment, the Shawnee board, as well as school employees, including Superintendent April Grace, were very aware of the complaints made by students and parents regarding the coach’s predatory conduct, but no one ever reported it. As a result, the coach had continued access to students. This is at least, but should be more, egregious and deserving of downgrade.  A downgrade, in turn, may give the parents what they need to support the changes in the District’s administration they want and need.

We also supported the State School Board’s decision to downgrade TPS as a result for a HB1775 violation.  Legal Overwatch filed a letter defending the OSDE’s investigation after the President of TPS School Board and the Tulsa School Superintendent requested a reconsideration of the State Board’s decision, and asked the State Board to reject their requests, which it did at its last meeting. 

Just today, I had a request come in from a parent who has been asked to sign a blanket release that would allow TPS to use freely any video, photographs, and audio of their children taken as a student of TPS. If the parent did not give permission, then the student is excluded from the yearbook.   It appears there is a story of a similar complaint by a Broken Arrow School parent.  We are doing research now to be able to advise parents as to possible next legal steps, including reaching out to the TPS school. 

However, what initiated my legal involvement that led to Legal Overwatch were parents who were fighting – and still are — the Bixby school system to remove books inappropriate for minors due to their sexual, violent and drug use content. Of course, we know this is an issue being fought in all states, before most school boards. The process to protest books is so burdensome for parents that it is impossible to have a book removed. This fight will never be done at the local level. We need a national rating system, such as been adopted by the video and recording industry, as well as movies and video games. So, I arranged for parents from Moms for Liberty and Reclaim Oklahoma Parents’ Empowerment (ROPE) to sit down with Congressman Kevin Hern to plead for the involvement of Congress. It was rewarding to see his jaw drop as he encountered the obscene graphics these parents are fighting, especially when they are being labeled book burners.      

Arnett: Is this what you’ve been doing your whole career?

Maria: (laughing) Absolutely not. I was an energy attorney for my entire career and retired from Dominion Energy in Richmond VA.  I didn’t have a litigation practice, and so feel a bit like a duck out of water when I’m in the courtroom, but I’ve been fighting leftist climate change policies that are still trying to shut down our fossil fuel industry.  Consequently, the myriad of regulations and administrative procedural rules for energy has given me a foundation for using legal strategy to check and check mate progressive educators who are fighting parents for control of their children.

Arnett: Is Oklahoma generally sympathetic to parents?

Maria: Actually, I was quite surprised by how much the Oklahoma legislature has been sensitive to issues relating to parents of children in the public school. In 2014, the legislature passed the Parents’ Bill of Rights. That legislation makes it very clear that parents are responsible for the key decisions that affect their children, both relating to moral, religious, and health considerations.  Parents should know at least these key provisions:

Parents have the right:

1. To direct the education of the minor child;

2. To access and review all school records relating to the minor child;

3. To direct the upbringing of the minor child;

4. To direct the moral or religious training of the minor child.

In the last two sessions, the Oklahoma legislature has worked to challenge progressive ideology that have entered our school systems, such as Critical Race Theory and transgenders’ rights regarding biological boys participating in girl sports and biological boys’ use of girls’ bathrooms; and the progressive sexification of our younger children.

For the legislature, though, the big fight will be school choice. First, I am in this fight to force change onto the progressive takeover of public education administrations which prioritizes the advancement of a cultural ideology over academics.  We will never move beyond the bottom 5 states in educational ranking if administrators don’t turn around students’ proficiencies in reading and writing.

School choice is one of those tools, but it cannot be the only tool. And neither can money.  I recognize that for most people, Democrats and Republicans alike, public education is as American as apple pie. So if we want to turn around the Titanic, we have to be honest about the causes.  I am tired of hearing Democrats keep blaming Oklahoma’s low funding and that school choice will defund public education. The effect of money on classroom performance has been debunked. Student-teacher ratio has been debunked. The best indicator of student success is the teacher in the classroom.  If we don’t start hiring teachers instead of social activists to teach our kids, we are lost.  If we don’t start teaching education students how children learn and how to teach, instead of what social theories they should use to indoctrinate students, we are lost. Real change is going to start when we change our leftist universities’ control over teacher education.

To reach Maria Mercedes Seidler and Legal Overwatch for Parents’ Student Rights email parentslegaloverwatch@gmail.com or call (918) 861-5337.

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