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'So hurtful': Fired Oklahoma City teachers respond after losing jobs for refusing to wear masks

NORMAN — Five teachers pledged to continue fighting Oklahoma City Public Schools after the school district fired them for refusing to wear masks.

The teachers lost their jobs Wednesday after the district school board voted unanimously to terminate their employment. 

Jesse Paxton, James Taylor, Grace Trick, Nelson Trick II and Jason Widener have had a lawsuit pending against the district since Sept. 2.

They originally asked to be reinstated and to have their disciplinary records wiped clean.

Now, they will add wrongful termination to the lawsuit, their attorney, Blake Sonne, said at a Thursday press conference.

Professional Oklahoma Educators attorney Blake Sonne, who represents five Oklahoma City Public School teachers who were fired for not wearing a mask, speaks during a press conference Thursday at Professional Oklahoma Educators office in Norman.

The teachers are "saddened" but not regretful, Sonne said.

"There is a risk when you stand up for what you believe in," he said. "You stand up for the rule of law. I don't think they have regret."

Four of the teachers joined Sonne at the news conference at the Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) state office in Norman. Sonne is the general counsel of POE, which provides legal services to member teachers. 

More: 6 Oklahoma City teachers fired for refusing to wear masks

All five were tenured educators in the district.

Paxton, Taylor and Widener worked at Roosevelt Middle School.

Nelson and Grace Trick, who are husband and wife, taught at Webster Middle School, and their children are enrolled in the district.

Webster Middle School teacher Grace Trick, one of five Oklahoma City Public School teachers fired for not wearing a mask, attends a press conference Thursday at Professional Oklahoma Educators in Norman.

Grace Trick said she has received "a lot of support, a lot of encouragement, a lot of people thanking me for standing up for myself."

"I am deeply in shock," she said. "I never thought I would find myself terminated. I have devoted so many years of my life to teaching, and for them to dismiss it all overnight was just so hurtful."

A sixth teacher, A.B. "Branch" Hague, also was fired from Capitol Hill Middle School. Hague was in his first year of teaching and had not yet achieved tenure, meaning the standard of cause to fire him was lower.

The school district began to require masks Aug. 16, despite a new state law prohibiting school boards from implementing mask mandates without an emergency order from the governor.

Superintendent Sean McDaniel said the law, Senate Bill 658, prevented school boards from mandating masks, but it mentioned nothing about superintendents. 

Mark Mann, Paula Lewis and Sean McDaniel during the Oklahoma City Public School Board meeting Monday, April 12, 2021.

The six teachers all showed up to work Aug. 16 with no intention of following the district's requirement, McDaniel said. Each was sent home on paid suspension.

Nine days later, McDaniel recommended they be fired.

Students in the school district can opt out of mask wearing for medical, religious or strong personal reasons, in line with a Sept. 1 court order from Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai.

But the district offers exemptions to staff only for medical needs. Each of the teachers requested to opt out because of personal opposition to the requirement.

The teachers said they chose not to comply with the district policy because they viewed it as a violation of SB 658.

"For me this has never been about the masks," Taylor said Wednesday. "This has always been about the rule of law." 

Roosevelt Middle School teacher Dr. James Taylor is a former Oklahoma City Public School teachers fired for not wearing a mask.

The district school board heard hours of testimony and comments in a hearing Wednesday night from both the teachers and McDaniel. 

The superintendent recommended termination after the teachers "plain outright refused to wear a mask," said Jessica Sherrill, general counsel for Oklahoma City schools.

"Please remember that students don’t have a choice of whether they attend school or not," Sherrill said during the termination hearing Wednesday night. "By law, they’re required to come to school. Teachers are different. Employees don’t have to come to school. They don’t have to work for OKCPS. They have a choice."

An Oklahoma County district judge declined on Sept. 24 to temporarily stop the termination hearing and the school district's mask requirement.

After the Sept. 24 ruling, five of the teachers offered to wear masks if they could return to work, but the district refused, Sonne said.

McDaniel also chose not to wait for court cases and appeals challenging SB 658 to be resolved before proceeding with termination. Sonne said the teachers won't sit on their hands, either, while other lawsuits play out.

"We plan on moving forward," he said. "They didn't want to wait for us, so I don't think we should wait for them."

State officials supportive of fired Oklahoma City teachers

High-ranking state officials voiced support for the group of teachers.

Oklahoma Education Secretary Ryan Walters said he's unaware of any other school district in the state that fired teachers over mask wearing.

"Firing six teachers seems to be counterproductive to ensuring that we put a quality teacher in front of kids," Walters said.

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters

Public schools already struggle to keep and retain educators, and signs point to more teachers possibly leaving the profession after this school year, said Walters, who is running to be the Oklahoma's next superintendent of public schools.

Rep. Rhonda Baker, chair of the House Common Education Committee, said it was unwise for the district to let go of multiple teachers who otherwise had high marks.

None of the six educators had faced disciplinary action before, their attorney said.

"The decision by the OKCPS Board of Education to terminate these teachers, without allowing for personal or religious exemptions, seems to be less about doing what is right for our kids and more about sending a message to other teachers who might feel the same way," Baker, R-Yukon, said in a statement.

Baker

State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, attended the Thursday press conference in solidarity with the group.

His Senate colleague Adam Pugh, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Oklahoma City schools showed a "blatant disregard for state law."

"While I remain optimistic that OKCPS will reverse their decision, I am confident that these six teachers will quickly find a school district that welcomes their talent and expertise back into the classroom," Pugh said in a statement.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the teachers reportedly offered to wear masks if they could return to work after a Sept. 24 ruling in Oklahoma County District Court, not after a Sept. 1 court order from district Judge Natalie Mai.

Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at nmartinez-keel@oklahoman.com or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.