State Superintendent Ryan Walters asked parents for tips on inappropriate material in schools, but got a flood of memes, pictures of food and animals and insults instead.
In March, Walters announced the creation of an email address — dubbed Parent Watch — where concerned parents could notify the Oklahoma State Department of Education about materials in school classrooms and libraries. The Frontier filed an open records request for emails people sent to the Parent Watch account.
Some people signed the state email account up for news alerts from food delivery services, newsletters for LGBTQ+ news, sex toys, and a Peppa Pig Theme Park in Florida. One person emailed the lyrics to the songs Teenagers by My Chemical Romance, Mambo No. 5 by Lou Bega and Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.
Read the emails sent to OSDE
Many sent links to news stories detailing sexual misconduct by religious figures and Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and across the country. One person emailed a lengthy portion of the script to the Bee Movie, a 2007 film written by Jerry Seinfeld.
The Frontier reviewed more than 4,000 pages of emails the public sent to the Parent Watch account during the first week of its existence but found only one complaint from a concerned parent that appeared to be submitted in good faith.
That complaint was about the novel Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert. The person said the school librarian recommended the book to her daughter, who is in junior high school. But her daughter stopped reading the book because she “didn’t feel comfortable with the content.”
The book description reads: “‘Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute’ follows two main characters Bradley and Celine who were once best friends, but are now essentially enemies. The two can barely stand to be around each other.” The emailer said the book contained sexual references and bad language.
It’s unclear if the State Department of Education or Walters followed up with the parent about the complaint. The person’s name and email address are redacted and the school where the book was allegedly kept was not named in the email, and Walters, State Department of Education spokesman Dan Issett and Chief Policy Advisor Matt Langston did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even seemingly serious responses eventually veered into parody. One person wrote to say their son was being banned from chanting “Let’s go Brandon,” a derogatory phrase aimed at President Joe Biden, at his high school.
“We will win,” the person wrote before giving away the gag. “We cannot be defeated by intelligence.”
Since taking office in January, Walters has cemented himself as the state’s top-elected culture warrior. One of his first moves was to support revoking teaching certifications for two Norman teachers who opposed a state law limiting instruction on race and gender. He sought to ban books, ranted about a Chinese language course, told U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that “shouldn’t be allowed” in Oklahoma, and pushed schools to teach content from the conservative media outlet PragerU. He spoke at a national Moms For Liberty summit, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group, and called for the U.S. Department of Education to be disbanded. He called teacher unions “terrorist organizations,” and successfully pushed for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist to leave office while teasing a possible state takeover of the district.
People wrote to the Parent Watch email account to vent about Walters’ remarks and policies.
While running for office, Walters repeated an urban legend about schools putting kitty litter in classrooms for students who identified as cats. The story is a myth, but one emailer pounced on the opportunity to turn it into a joke as well.
“If you had to pick, would you rather (put) Pamela Anderson’s head on a Garfield body or Garfield head on Pam Anderson’s body,” they asked. “This question is no more invalid than people asking about litter boxes in schools.”
Many wrote to express concerns about banning some books from schools.
“I am extremely worried about the idea that schools would restrict/ban books from their classrooms,” one person wrote. “This is censorship, and it is not part of our American values.”
Other emailers targeted Walters directly.
“Ryan Walters is a disgrace to Oklahoma and I pray he resigns in disgrace,” one person wrote.
“Ryan Walters needs to be watched. What an unhinged creep,” another wrote.
Some emailers bypassed the jokes or insults in favor of pointed questions.
“I have serious concerns about Tulsa Public Schools and the constant attacks from our state superintendent on it,” one person wrote. “These kids are pawns in a fabricated political scheme from the right.”
Many called for the Bible to be barred from classrooms because of its depictions of sex and violence.
“It promotes the following,” one person wrote, “Incest, Murder of and by multiple characters, Adultery, Genocide, Child sacrifice, Polyamorous relationships, Sex trafficking, Human trafficking, Depictions of sex/body parts, Swear words.”