Not long after Brock Turner was accused of sexual assault, Oakwood City School District officials determined they would offer no public comment about his case.
Behind the scenes, parents, faculty and alumni began commenting to the district in emails — public records obtained by the Dayton Daily News.
They second-guessed the district’s sexual education curriculum, questioned whether the schools were doing enough to teach about consent during sex and asked why employees wrote letters on behalf of a convicted sex offender. They also shared ideas about how to improve the district and develop students in ways unconsidered prior to Turner’s case.
To better understand how district officials responded to community concerns and intense national scrutiny, the newspaper requested, obtained and reviewed all correspondence mentioning “Brock Turner” sent or received on every district-issued email account since Jan. 1, 2015 — two weeks before the 2014 Oakwood High School graduate sexually assaulted an intoxicated, unconscious woman at Stanford University.
The emails illustrate not only a barrage of requests from national media, but also show how the Oakwood community reacted to the controversy that exploded following Turner’s conviction and sentencing.
The TV news trucks showed up outside Oakwood High School the morning of Jan. 28, 2015.
“We have no comment to the media,” wrote Superintendent Kyle Ramey in a 7:03 a.m. email to all staff with subject line “Heads Up.”
It was a message that would be reiterated to staff in coming months.
“Given such a topic and the emotional responses that are being released, it might be a good thing to remind them of before they express their two cents,” Treasurer Kevin Philo emailed other administrators on June 7, 2016, soon after Turner’s sentencing to six months in county jail.
“How do you do that without it triggering something else?” Ramey replied.
The statement they decided to share with staff read, in part, “The Turner family no longer resides in Oakwood, and this is not a school issue.”
Of about 75 employees on Oakwood High School’s online directory, four wrote letters on Turner’s behalf. Thirty-nine letters on Turner’s behalf were reviewed by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky before sentencing.
Those who wrote letters received media requests from outlets such as “Inside Edition,” NBC News, People Magazine and CNN’s “Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield.”
“The one thing that we feel is important to get out there is the other side of the story, Brock’s side,” wrote a CNN producer to English teacher Amy Ostdiek. “As you were one of the people who wrote a character letter for him, would you be willing to speak with Ashleigh?”
“I have not and will not respond,” Ostdiek wrote when she forwarded the CNN email to Oakwood High School Principal Paul Waller.
Waller thanked her for the email.
“We will get through this,” he wrote.
‘Gross error in judgment’
From the beginning, Ramey reminded teachers Turner’s case “may be a subject of conversation in the hallways and classrooms too.”
“If a student needs support, please be sure to direct them to their counselor and/or principal,” he wrote.
Five days later, Ramey would reply to a concerned 2013 alumnus that counseling staff “are tremendous resources” for students dealing with the “tragic event.”
Just more than a year later, two of the high school guidance department’s five employees became a resource for Turner’s defense by authoring character letters on his behalf.
The letters drew criticism and, in some cases, vitriol.
“We pray that you are violently raped…” began part of a graphic email handed over to Oakwood police.
Another, from a parent to Waller about guidance department chair Kelly Owens, read, “I no longer have confidence that Ms. Owens is able to offer appropriate guidance…” Calling her letter a “gross error in judgment,” the parent asked their student be transferred to another counselor.
Owens’ letter, written on school letterhead, said Turner was “absolutely undeserving of the outcome” in the trial. Wrote a community member to Ramey, “Why would an OCSD employee act on his behalf? Why not just stay out of it?”
“This is a personnel matter and will be handled appropriately and, as all personnel matters, confidentially,” Ramey replied.
“I trust the school district to do the right thing for our kids in need of guidance and counseling,” the woman replied. “Obviously there’s drinking and drugs here like anywhere, and we should get this problem under control.”
Owens later publicly apologized for her statements and to the victim. Privately, school registrar Beth Johnson — who works in the guidance department and wrote “To this day, I would and will defend the character of Brock Turner” — emailed Ramey, “I apologize to have the district involved.”
Without blaming the school for Turner’s own actions, the concerned alumnus who wrote Ramey offered perspective about how “sex education at Oakwood should change” to prevent cases like Turner’s.
“I found it to be mildly insensitive at the time, but looking back it was incredibly problematic for a variety of ways,” she wrote about her freshman-year health class. “We never discussed consent, which I believe to be crucial to learning about health.”
“With nothing but media spawned by rape culture and parents educated in the same system to teach students about consent, students may graduate with incredibly misguided ideas about sex,” she wrote, encouraging teaching consent from fourth grade forward.
Her email then turns to a subject she felt, due to her need for college recommendations, she could not address while in school.
“I also found several faculty at Oakwood to have offensive ideas about gender and sexual assault,” she said, alleging, among other issues, an instance where several faculty members circulated material titled, “Why Republican Men are Happy,” which compared “attractive” Republican female politicians with Democratic women in unflattering circumstances.
“As a woman interested in entering politics, it showed me that my career aspirations, my intelligence, my hard work, didn’t matter at all, because people would still view me as an object,” she wrote. The “blatant objectification” allowed in one Oakwood classroom, she alleged, “contributes to rape culture and the idea that women are sexual objects rather than people.”
Ramey responded in less than two hours.
“… I want to apologize for any uncomfortableness that you may have felt while attending school and for feeling that you could not bring your concerns to our attention at that time,” Ramey wrote, thanking her for her courage and assuring he would follow up with appropriate personnel.
“Obviously, we want every student to feel comfortable and cared for every day and, when that is not the case, we should respond accordingly and in a timely fashion to address those needs,” he wrote.
Turner’s case spurred conversations among parents and teachers about better ways to address sexual education, the emails show.
“Given the recent and current news about Brock Turner, we’ve had a lot of discussion about rape in the Oakwood Moms Group,” one parent wrote a district counselor. “We are interested in having a special meeting in the next week or so to discuss this and how to address what one of our members calls ‘rape culture.’”
“Do you know of any people in the greater Dayton community who are experts or comfortable talking about rape?” the mother asked.
The counselor, who did not write a letter on Turner’s behalf, offered the name of a speaker.
“I’m glad that folks are taking the opportunity to use this as a learning experience for their children,” she said.
Teachers who participate in an event called Young Mens Breakfast, a group that discusses issues of character during breakfast, exchanged emails. Forwarding a recently circulated sexual consent video from the United Kingdom that compares consent to drinking tea, math teacher Jay Lane wrote, “It might make a difficult topic — one we have discussed, but avoided — easier to address.”
“In light of recent events, Brock Turner’s conviction and sentencing, it might be appropriate for us to consider,” Lane wrote.
Replied engineering teacher Tony Rainsberger, “This is a topic I would love to see YMB club discuss.”
He added, “I think it’s important that we try to address/change sexual crimes at a grass roots level.”
Rainsberger cites how, earlier in the year, he asked Waller to consider having all students in homeroom read a letter from Detroit Lions linebacker Deandre Levy about consent during sex.
He wrote at the time, “I personally wish we had more conversations about this with our older students (seniors) before they went off to college. I hope it would empower young women and help young men understand the idea of freely given consent.
“In hindsight I really wish we would have had this conversation with Brock Turner.”
CHECKING THE FACTS
District officials will review and audit the decade-old health curriculum this year in accordance with a schedule set before Brock Turner’s case. Unlike other subjects with statewide standards, each district in Ohio sets its own standard for sex education.
Oakwood City School District’s current educational standards show fifth-grade students are taught to “identify inappropriate touching and sexual abuse” and “be aware of social pressure and the right to say ‘no.’” The high school curriculum does not directly teach “consent” by name. Rather, classes “discuss refusal, negotiation, and collaboration skills to avoid potentially harmful situations.”
To better understand how Oakwood City School District officials reacted to Brock Turner’s case, the Dayton Daily News used Ohio public records law to review more than 17 months worth of district emails.